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Colombia forest fires destroy over 17,000 hectares

Firefighters work at the site of a forest fire in Nemocon, Colombia. — AFP
Firefighters work at the site of a forest fire in Nemocon, Colombia. — AFP

BOGOTA: Forest fires have destroyed more than 17,000 hectares in Colombia since November, authorities said, as the country faces its hottest January in decades.

More than 340 fires have been recorded in that period, spurred by prolonged drought, record heat, and the El Nino weather phenomenon, Environment Minister Susana Muhamad said, adding that 26 fires were still blazing.

Colombia has been battling several fires near the capital since Monday, including some in the mountains overlooking Bogota, and authorities have advised residents living close to burnt areas to avoid going outside because of the poor air quality.

"Today, we have a fire in the Nevada del Cocuy," a natural park with snow-capped peaks about 250 kilometres northeast of Bogota, Muhamad told a news conference.

She added that the flames were at a "quite high" point in the park, so a helicopter had been deployed to assess the situation.

One of the fires is burning about 900 metres from Bogota's eastern El Paraiso neighbourhood.

Some residents affected by the smoke were being treated, the Colombian Red Cross in Bogota wrote on social media platform X, alongside photos of emergency workers helping a man wearing a facemask.

President Gustavo Petro this week declared a natural disaster, allowing funds to be diverted from other budget items towards containing the blazes, and appealed for international aid.

Bogota's El Dorado international airport returned to normal operations on Friday after restrictions the previous day affected 138 flights.

The president said global warming was aggravating the effects of El Nino -- a phenomenon typically associated with increased temperatures worldwide, drought in some parts of the world and heavy rains in others.

Forecasters expect the conditions, which began in November, to last until at least April.

"At the moment there are 62 municipalities with water stress. That is, where the freshwater capacity has equalled or is below the population's demand," Petro said.

This month is shaping up to be the hottest January in 30 years, according to Ghisliane Echeverry, director of the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies in Colombia.

Echeverry warned February could see even higher temperatures, and only in March will rains help to "mitigate" the consequences of the extreme heat.

Authorities are investigating whether arsonists are causing some of the fires, and police have arrested 26 people for "fire-related offences". — AFP

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