The fires sweeping through Mexico and Central America have destroyed crops, villages, irreplaceable ecological preserves and the hopes and fortunes of many thousands of people.
In Mexico, 12,800 fires have consumed more than 1.1 million acres since January. Almost 1 million acres surrounding Peten, Guatemala's timeless Mayan archeological zone, have been scorched. Nicaragua has become a raging hell with more than 13,000 fires since last December. In Honduras, nearly 130,000 acres have burned. Similar damage is reported in Costa Rica and El Salvador.
All this is the work of man, exacerbated by terrible drought caused by El Nino. Smoke from the fires has drifted to Texas, Florida and even as far north as Wisconsin. The U.S. Agency for International Development has sent south a heavy-lift helicopter, safety equipment for up to 3,000 firefighters, communications equipment and the very valuable assistance of 41 experts. But much more needs to be done--and continued U.S. assistance and expertise will be important.
The vast majority of the fires have found fuel in the forest and grassland areas where centuries-old slash-and-burn agriculture is practiced by peasant farmers. Sadly, there are also reports of blazes set by wealthy landowners who want to clear the land for grazing and drug traffickers who use fires as diversions to keep the army busy, away from their turf.