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Colombia declares a disaster because of wildfires and asks for international help

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombia’s government declared a disaster Thursday and asked for international help to combat raging wildfires that are expected to worsen in coming days due to warm, dry conditions associated with the El Niño weather phenomenon.

Officials raised the number of fires from 25 to 31, and said nine of them were under control. They did not order mandatory evacuations despite some fires burning in the mountains that surround some municipalities.

President Gustavo Petro said Chile, the United States, Peru and Canada have already responded to the call for help, without specifying when the assistance will arrive to the South American country.

The government also asked for aid from the United Nations and European Union.

“To the extent that we know that in the coming days and weeks crisis events are going to increase, we want to make sure that we have the physical capacity to address and mitigate them,” Petro said.

Colombia’s Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies reported that roughly half of the country’s municipalities are on maximum alert due to fire risk. But about a third of all municipalities do not have a fire department, according to the National Fire Department of Colombia.

The decreasing rainfall and increasing temperatures that are worsening the fire situation are attributed to El Nino, which is a temporary warming of parts of the central Pacific that changes weather worldwide.

The disaster declaration allows the government to reallocate funds to tackle the wildfires.

The army has deployed more than 600 soldiers as well as aircraft and vehicles to emergency areas.

Meanwhile, police are using planes authorized to spray chemicals on coca leaf crops to transport and drop water over the fires, including over those that broke out in a mountain range that surrounds Bogota, the capital.