A massive, fast-moving ash cloud several hundred meters high and several kilometers wide swept away southern Paraguay as storms blew debris from wildfires raging in neighboring Argentina after two years severe drought.
The colossal bank of smog enveloped Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, on Monday evening, enveloping the city and its suburbs in a thick gray haze with the aroma of scorched vegetation.
Forecasters warned residents to stay indoors to avoid breathing in the smoky miasma.
In the southern district of Ayolas, where the fires have been blazing since early January, conditions were so bleak that birds climbed into trees to roost, thinking it was dark, said Ray Mendoza, a volunteer firefighter.
“Within minutes, the city fell into total darkness,” Mendoza said. “It’s the first time in 20 to 25 years that I’ve done this that I see something like this.”
An index measuring particles in the air exploded a figure of more than 180, close to levels deemed “very unhealthy” by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Impactful videos on social media showed the towering wall of dust and soot crossing the Paraná River from the province of Corrientes in northern Argentina – 250 km (155 miles) south of Asunción – and stuffy beaches, farms and highways.
A weather front of cold air from the south acted “like a broom”, said Eduardo Dose, a Paraguayan hydrologist, picking up soot from scorched pastures and forests as well as dust from drought-stricken wetlands. Strong winds then funneled the sweltering cloud towards the Paraguay River and directly towards the capital.
Severe storms are normal for the subtropics, Dose added. “But if we’re going to talk about what’s causing the fires, then we can talk about climate change.”
Massive fires have been raging in Argentina for almost two months. Almost a million hectares in Corrientes were burned, an area the size of Puerto Rico or Cyprus. Fires continue to burn in nine of Argentina’s 23 provinces.
Scientists indicate once a century Drought — in turn linked to the global climate crisis, the La Niña weather pattern, and the rampant deforestation of soybean plantations and cattle ranches in the Amazon and beyond — as driving the fires.
Monoculture pine plantations have also served as highly combustible fuel for accidental and man-made conflagrations.
“Scorching summer temperatures, high winds and dry vegetation have combined to turn parts of South America into a powder keg,” NASA said in a statement with Satellite imagery Corrientes fires in mid-February.
The fires are decimating irreplaceable wildlife in the vast wetlands of northeast Argentina, killing and displacing jaguars, anteaters, capybaras, birds and amphibians.
About half of Parque Iberá, an ambitious reseeding project covering approximately 1,600 km2 in the far north of Corrientes, near the Paraguayan border, was lost after lightning struck the dried up nature reserve.
“It is with a heavy heart that I share the devastation the wildfires are causing in the Iberá wetlands,” tweeted Kristine Tompkins, president of Tompkins Conservation, which has created 13 national parks, including Iberá, across Chile and Argentina.
With soybeans and beef products accounting for more than a third of Argentina’s exports, the government has been slow to respond. A bill to protect wetlands was withdrawn from congress by the progressive government of Alberto Fernández in December.
Social media influencer Santi Maratea has raised nearly $1 million to buy fire trucks and equipment for the volunteer firefighters of Corrientes, who do most of the work.
Volunteers also struggled to put out fires in the district of Ayolas in southern Paraguay, which contributed in the ash cloud.
“We’ve had some rain the past few days, but it’s not enough to put out all the fires in the area,” Mendoza said.