CALI – Project Phoenix and the Cristo Rey Fire Restoration

Known as the Salsa capital of the world, Cali is filled with music and dancing and some bruised toes now that I’ve spent a few days here.
As with many FireTreks meetings, a lot is down to luck rather than judgement and I’ve found that boring as many people as I can with my tales of firey adventures can often lead to making fantastic contacts.
One such lead brought me to meet Catalina Silva Bermúdez and Sandra Lorena Franco, a biologist and environmental engineer respectively who work for the Departamento Administrativo de Gestión del Medio Ambiente (DAGMA) [the Administrative Department of Environmental Management]. DAGMA is a government agency which has created ‘Project Phoenix’ which aims to regenerate ecosystems post-fire and is the primary focus of Catalina and Sandra’s work. The project covers the whole of the Cerros Tutelares de Cali area including Cristo Rey, Tres Cruces Bataclan and Cerro Bandera.
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Catalina and Sandra showing off the Project Phoenix nursery (with a little help from super boy and Rosie the dog)
Overlooking the city is Cali’s version of Rio’s ‘Christ the Redeemer’ sitting atop the Cerro de los Cristales or ‘Hill of the Crystals’. Cristo Rey is the focus of this case study as the area has been subjected to a number of fires in recent history – the last of which destroyed a large area of the parkland.
On August 31st 2018 a wildfire occurred in the Cerro Los Cristales and Ecoparque Cristo Rey, which began approximately at 4:30pm near to the Cali River.
Eye witnesses stated that the fire was man made rather than caused naturally and was the first case of it’s kind in 2018.
The fire grew and the fire brigade was eventually called at 5:04pm and DAGMA was made aware of the situation.
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Fire fighters setting up (provided by DAGMA)
Fire fighters arrived at the scene and with support of DAGMA rangers, members of the local community and volunteer fire fighters they attempted to control the fire (5:28pm).
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Fire fighting the Cristo Rey fire (provided by DAGMA)
There were multi-directional air currents due to the surrounding hillsides and geographical conditions which spread the fire around the lower sections of the monument, flanking the hillside and rising quickly, ultimately surrounding the structure. The fire was visible from the whole of Cali and it’s easy to understand why local people described it as the ‘return of the devil’.
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Fire spread around the hillside (provided by DAGMA)
The fire raged for 10 hours, involved around 110 specialist fire fighters, 10 DAGMA rangers and communities from Mameyal and Vereda Sectors of the city. A result of this effort meant that the fire did not reach any homes and there was no loss of life.
What was lost however was a major section of the ecosystem which was previously protected with investment from rangers, communities, local businesses, academic schemes and environmental NGO’s amounting to an estimated $1,000 million pesos. The scheme had started in 2014 and had restored around 3000 hectares.
This was an emotional time for people who worked in the area before the fire and saw the fruits of their labour literally go up in smoke. An evaluation was carried out the following month to assess the damage which found that over 103 hectares of land was affected. It was difficult to read this report particularly with a detailed account of the animals which had perished in the flames.
Approximately 135,000 herbaceous plants, shrubs and trees were lost along with various small mammals, bats, birds, snakes, insects and lizards.
Catalina and Sandra brought me to the site to see first hand, the damage caused and the regenerative work that had been carried out to restore the land so far. It was a great opportunity to review what I had learnt in Bogota regarding wildfires against a real scenario.
At first glance the area does not appear to show signs of a fire, but closer inspection revealed scalded plant life in isolated areas and a clear line visibly demarcating forested areas and areas of new plant life.
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Scalded plant life
The Cristo Rey statue also showed signs of soot deposits and from what I had previously learnt in Bogota it was possible to determine the direction the fire approached from.
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Soot deposit shading particularly on the hands and right side of the face indicating the direction of the fire
After the fire, a plan of action to restore the area was considered critical and a meeting of key stakeholders was carried out to schedule an appropriate timeline of recovery. This included: local universities, DAGMA, the fire brigade, external consultants and ecological foundations.
One of the key themes outlined in this meeting stressed heavily the importance of engaging the community in the restoration process to both educate and to make people care about their local environment. The aim of this was to help the future of the ecosystem, stem future arson events, promote funding and engage volunteers and students which also helped provide the man-power required to replant.
The soil in Cali is particularly poor following the fires and issues with erosion. This meant engineering works were required to recover areas where soil had deteriorated before replanting could begin.
It was also important to develop an ecosystem that would be more resistant to fire and fire spread in order to protect such large scale disasters occurring in the future whilst still maintaining the native plant life. The strategy therefore required collaboration between the Department of Risk Management, the Volunteer Fire Brigade of Cali and DAGMA in order to future proof against the risk of fires. This included the following:
  • Development of properly equipped water reservoirs used to fight the fire,
  • Building of turrets for visual inspections,
  • Building of permanent lookouts at critical points for use during a fire,
  • Acquisition and installation of thermal cameras,
  • New specialised training for wardens and rangers to form a ‘forest brigade’ equipped with radio telephones and specialist equipment,
  • Review of critical fire paths to design firebreaks.
The first mass planting occurred on the 28th October 2018, to commemorate the monument’s 65th anniversary. Lessons learnt from previous ecological restoration processes were incorporated, i.e areas of pine forests were not replanted since they were quick to burn and not native to the area.
It was expected 5 years would be needed to implement the strategy and on my visit, it was clear that this schedule was being met as a lot of the above had already been carried out.
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New plants tagged with different colours depending on who planted them and lookout tower in the distance
It was fascinating to see that some plants were being used for their fire resistant properties to form fire barriers. Roadways, rivers and breaks in planting were incorporated and lined with Furcraea foetida commonly known as ‘Cabuya’ which have good fire resisting properties.
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Furcraea foetida commonly known as Cabuya used to form fire barriers
A major reason for most of the fires in the area is due to people setting fires to clear the land in order to build illegal housing. Unfortunately, the schemes to educate people on the importance of fire safety do not often reach the poorer communities where these problems occur. Soberingly, the day that I visited the site, a fire once again began down by the river. Although this was quickly controlled it really highlighted the importance of the great work that was being carried out to protect the beautiful and delicate ecosystem that Cali has to offer.

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