The air was thick with smoke as the fire quickly closed in, before long Jose Vallejos would be trapped. Wildfires aren’t common in Peru, so he was surprised by how easily the wind carried the flames and how intensely they devoured the forest. Jose spotted a tree outside the fire-line, seizing the opportunity he climbed up and over it, escaping to a safe patch of land. Normally Jose spends his days as a spectacled bear conservationist with Robyn Appleton and Spectacled Bear Conservation (SBC), but for six weeks last winter, he was a firefighter.
While we celebrated the holidays in November and December, wildfires destroyed an area of Peru’s cloud forests bigger than Washington DC and San Francisco combined. These forests contained villages—homes, farms, and livestock—as well as critical bear habitat. The fires tore through Laquipampa National Park, claiming the lives of three of the 35 bears that SBC regularly monitors there, and burning away their food sources until only 50 percent of the bears’ winter habitat was left. These wildfires were a result of a five-year drought that turned Peru’s forests into a tinderbox; as people burned brush, commonly done for agriculture, fires got out of control. SBC’s team took immediate action, risking their own lives to fight the fires. Jose lead the charge; coordinating villagers, carrying them in by the truckload, and outfitting them with shovels used to smother the flames. Without these efforts, the entire park would have been reduced to ash and the roughly 100 bears in and around it could have been lost.
With the fires now extinguished, SBC is carving a path forward. They have begun reestablishing critical conservation efforts—recouping damaged equipment such as their remote camera traps, recalculating current bear populations, and starting to reforest areas affected by the fires. Perhaps most importantly, they are working within local communities to stop future fires before they start. Through educational outreach and distributing fire kits, SBC is prioritizing fire prevention, ensuring people and bears remain safe in the cloud forest.