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Alberta wildfire experts in Bolivia to help with fire training, prevention

On her first trip to Bolivia in January, Jane Park hiked about 20 kilometres with national park rangers to a steep, remote area with endangered palm trees and the Andean, or spectacled, bear.

Much of the area in ANMI-El Palmar, one of the country’s protected areas, had been burned in a wildfire.

“A lot of areas where they are fighting fires are extremely remote,” Park said in a recent interview from Banff, Alta.

Park, who’s on an unpaid leave from her regular job as a fire and vegetation specialist in Banff National Park, is one of two Alberta experts spending some of their off-season helping the Bolivian government prepare for an increase in fires due to climate change.

It’s part of Global Affairs Canada’s technical assistance partnership, which allows Canadians from different backgrounds to share their expertise in other countries.

Park came across the opportunity online and got the contract, which started with the trip to Bolivia in January to tour five of the country’s protected areas.

The trek to El Palmar, an integrated management natural area, was the same route park rangers took when the fire started.

“It’s incredible,” said Park. “They walk enormous distances. They are local people, they are used to high elevation and they are extremely fit.

“But if you imagine that even the fittest rangers take several hours to walk into a fire, the amount of fire growth that would occur during that time and then the challenges that come with fighting it without aircraft or without decent sources of water, it’s all the more challenging.”

Park added that the rangers carry portable water bladder packs and use machetes to fight the fires.

“In Canada, we have easy access to aircraft and water,” she said. “So, there are definitely some interesting and very challenging conditions that folks have to work with down there.

Park, who returned to Bolivia this week, said she’s helping the environmental departments improve their management practices and build capacity to respond to those fires.

“That’s everything from prevention, suppression, wildfire management, communication, monitoring.”

Bolivia’s protected areas have high biodiversity, but wildfires — due to drought and longer fire seasons caused by climate change — have threatened them.