Humanitarian Rescue Units of the armed forces of Central America and Mexico came together in early April 2018 to put out a fire in the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, located in southwestern Nicaragua. Helicopters from El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico conducted more than 400 flights to drop 630,000 liters of water over 5,500 hectares of land.
“Efforts to fight this fire from helicopters of our Air Force and our sister countries’ air forces were major. It was an intense effort, first, to extinguish the fire and, second, to eliminate the sources of heat from which smoke emanated,” said Army General Julio César Avilés, commander of the Nicaraguan Army. “We are grateful for the coordinated work between the armies and local residents.”
The fire in Indio Maíz lasted almost 10 days. “The Nicaraguan Armed Force was able to stop the advance of flames with a firewall operation [clearing land to prevent the fire from spreading] along 25 kilometers with an average width of 10 meters,” said Army Colonel Rogelio Flores Ortiz, chief of staff of the Nicaraguan Civil Defense. “We also relied on the intervention of 1,500 military troops, 160 volunteer firefighters, and the work of air forces from countries like El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico.”
The partner nations answered the Nicaraguan government’s call for help on April 6th since Nicaraguan Army and Air Force helicopters did not have the necessary equipment for aerial water drops. Time was their worst enemy, and air was the only way to get to areas under fire.
On April 9th, the Mexican Air Force (FAM, in Spanish) was the first to join the efforts to extinguish the fire. The Mexican helicopter stocked up on the Indio River, which borders the reserve in the municipality of San Juan del Norte on the outskirt of Costa Rica.
“It is a pleasure to be able to help the Nicaraguan people, an honor to join these efforts. The aircraft has two helicopter buckets, each with a capacity of 2,000 liters,” FAM Captain Francisco Sánchez told Diálogo. “As there was a body of water nearby, we did 14 drops per hour. We were able to ensure that the work was continuous and effective in putting out the flames.”
On April 11th, two Bell UH-1 Huey helicopters arrived from the Salvadoran Air Force (FAS, in Spanish) and the Honduran Air Force (FAH in Spanish). Both aircraft were equipped with the Bambi Bucket system, large sacks that can hold between 1,600 and 1,800 liters of water and allow for controlled release over fires.
“The [FAS] crew was made up of three pilots who flew for two hours nonstop. They refueled and continued the effort to put out this fire,” Colonel Ángel Sermeño, an officer of the FAS mission in Nicaragua, told Diálogo. “The experience we have in putting out fires with this type of equipment is effective, which is why we are proud and grateful to come and support our military peers from Nicaragua in this mission,” added Lieutenant Colonel Manuel Ricarte, an officer of the FAH mission in Nicaragua.
Indio Maíz, lung of the region
According to the National Civil Police of Nicaragua, Miguel Ángel Díaz Sevilla, a resident of the Siempre Viva community in the municipality of San Juan del Norte, started the fire. The perpetrator confessed to the act, stating that his family has been burning land for years to raise crops.
“My father has done this [burning land], but nothing like this ever happened before. When the brigade came to put out the fire, my family and I volunteered to help,” said Díaz when he was arrested.
On April 16th, the Nicaraguan Armed Force and the countries that answered the call for help were able to put out the fire. “We are still keeping a military contingent in the area. We hope that the rains will contribute to our troops’ efforts to completely eliminate these sources of heat that still persist in certain areas where the fire burned,” Col. Flores said to Diálogo.
The Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, the largest in Central America, extends across 320,000 hectares. Located on the border with Costa Rica, it forms part of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. The Nicaraguan Armed Force estimated that the fire destroyed 5,484 hectares of tropical forest. The fire spread quickly because of the abundance of leafy yolillo palms rich in oil, which promoted the fire propagation and resilience.
Indio Maíz and its dense woods are rarely explored, but the reserve boasts hundreds of species of flora and fauna. It is estimated to be home to 1,221 species of birds, 159 of insects, 65 of mammals, 55 of reptiles, 34 of amphibians, and 26 of fish The region also counts 101 endemic endangered species.