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Cablegate: Colombia Requests U.S. Support to Combat Spreading Fires

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OO RUEHWEB

DE RUEHBO #0015/01 0071844
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
O R 071844Z JAN 10
FM AMEMBASSY BOGOTA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 1919
INFO RHEHAAA/NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL WASHINGTON DC
RUEHBO/AMEMBASSY BOGOTA
RUEHSJ/AMEMBASSY SAN JOSE
RUEHZP/AMEMBASSY PANAMA
RUMIESS/SOUTHCOM IESS MIAMI FL

UNCLAS BOGOTA 000015

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS
OFDA SAN JOSE FOR CALLAGHAN AND GELMAN
OFDA WASHINGTON FOR CATHLEEN MARTIN

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: EAID SENV EAGR ECON PREL PGOV CO
SUBJECT: COLOMBIA REQUESTS U.S. SUPPORT TO COMBAT SPREADING FIRES

1. (SBU) Summary and Action Request: The GOC requested emergency
USG fire-fighting assistance on January 6 to help combat a growing
number of fires caused by an atypical drought in Colombia. More
than 60 municipalities have been affected by such fires, damaging
an estimated 1,700 hectares. Our preliminary appraisal is that the
situation is not yet a national disaster, but could rapidly
escalate to that level, particularly as the drought extends over
the next few months. Ambassador requests that the Office of U.S.
Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) send U.S. fire-fighter experts
to Colombia to assess the situation and make recommendations.
Ambassador also urges that OFDA and SOUTHCOM assign JTF-Bravo
helicopter assets in Honduras -- already configured, trained, and
experienced at fire-fighting in Brazil and Paraguay -- to deploy
and provide reinforcement to Colombian efforts at specific fire
locations. Ambassador believes the helos should deploy from one of
the seven named DCA bases. End Summary.

2. (SBU) Minister of Defense Gabriel Silva contacted the
Ambassador on January 6 to request USG fire-fighting resources,
notably U.S. aircraft, to combat an increasing number of fires
caused by an extended drought. Minister Silva identified five
separate regions where Colombia needs air support. Environment
Minister Carlos Costa raised similar concerns with EconCouns and
provided a detailed list of requested assistance.

Air Assets and Equipment Request

-------------------------------------------

3. (SBU) The GOC request highlighted the need for: five UH-60L
"Blackhawk" helicopters; five Huey II helicopters; five C-208
Caravan aircraft; two B-350 King aircraft; and Airborne
Fire-Fighting System equipment for one C-130 Hercules aircraft and
two C-295 Casa Espanol aircraft. The Colombians also requested
five helicopter Bambi Buckets and 8,000 gallons of chemical fire
retardant for the Bambi Buckets. The request also included
fire-fighting equipment and gear to supplement the poorly-outfitted
Colombian fire-fighters on the ground.

4. (SBU) Minister Costa indicated that 64 municipalities already
have combated fires and the figure is rising daily; an estimated
1,700 hectares have been burned. He expects fires to spread
further and conditions to deteriorate as the drought in Colombia
continues over the next 2-3 months. Colombian weather forecasters
predict a particularly dry period as a result of the El Nino
weather phenomenon. Costa noted that more than 140 municipalities
are under emergency fire alerts. Both Ministers indicated
President Uribe would soon declare a national emergency.

5. (U) Over the past few days in the capital, Colombian
helicopters have been transporting buckets of water from a local
park to fire sites in the Bogota hillsides. Some fires continue to
burn, with some near residential areas. Embassy housing has not
been affected. On January 4, Post issued a Warden message to warn
all U.S. citizens of the wildfires.

Post's Assessment

------------------------

6. (SBU) Our judgment is that the current crisis does not yet rise
to the level of a national emergency (imminent danger of massive
death and destruction), but it is a very serious local emergency in
many areas. The fires have begun to cause significant
environmental damage in central Colombia. Colombia is
traditionally a wet country with lots of rainfall (more than 70% of
its energy is generated by hydroelectric plants). Fire-fighting on
a large scale goes beyond the GOC's experience and capabilities,
and expanded outbreaks could escalate the crisis quickly into a
national emergency.

Action Request

--------------------

7. (SBU) Ambassador requests that OFDA immediately send a small
team of fire-fighter experts to Colombia to assess the fires and
make recommendations concerning strategy and required resources to
combat the flames. The Ambassador also urges that OFDA and
SOUTHCOM authorize JTF Bravo helicopter assets in Honduras to
deploy to Colombia to reinforce local efforts in specific fire
locations. We understand these assets are properly configured and
well trained with previous fire-fighting experience in Brazil and
Paraguay.
BROWNFIELD

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