Argentina fires rage on in Corrientes, burning an important wetland

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BUENOS AIRES, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Wildfires in Argentina's north have continued to spread through the province of Corrientes, burning more than 600,000 hectares, scarring farmlands and killing protected animals and plants in the major Ibera National Park, an important wetland area.

Local authorities have sent firefighters, police and volunteers to fight some 15 blazes that have ripped through the region near the border with Paraguay, burning over 6% of the entire province, which has been hit by drought and high temperatures since late last year.

"More than 600,000 hectares have been burned; our teams can't cope. We have water bomber planes, helicopters, but we just can't cope," Commander Daniel Bertorello of the provincial capital's Volunteer Firefighters said in a telephone interview.

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The weather forecast is not encouraging, as high temperatures are expected over the weekend, with no rain, according to the National Meteorological Service.

More than 25 billion Argentine pesos ($234 million) have already been lost due to the fires in Corrientes, according to the Argentine Rural Society. The province produces fruit, livestock and other agricultural products.

"We're mortgaging 10 years of our future because of this situation, because all the new plantations have died," Orlando Stvass, a producer of yerba mate, a popular herbal tea product, told local television channel Telefe

In the Ibera National Park, one of the world's largest freshwater wetlands, the fires have affected diverse wildlife, which includes threatened animals such as marsh deer, alligators and more than 380 species of birds.

Images from the area showed animals dead or fleeing the fire, exhausted firefighters facing huge blazes, and shocking images of charred fields.

"The animals do not have water. We leave water for the monkeys in the trees and for the alligators two or three thousand liters per day, when we do not need it to put out the fire," said Andrea Boloqui, president of the Corrientes Chamber of Tourism. "The estuary is dry."

Enrique Viale, president of the Argentine Association of Environmental Lawyers, said the huge losses from the fire were a sad example of how climate change and human activity were destroying the environment and causing economic losses.

"The causes of this disaster must be sought in the terrible combination of a great drought, global climate change, together with bad local development models based on exotic forest species, rice fields and cattle ranching on wetlands," he said.

($1 = 106.7700 Argentine pesos)

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Reporting by Lucila Sigal; Additional reporting by Walter Bianchi; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Jonathan Oatis

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