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Fire Holds a Significance in Costa Rica

By Emily OConnor
SANTA ROSA NATIONAL PARK, Costa Rica The blazing inferno that
sweeps through plots of Santa Rosa National Park every year also
burns in the souls of the people the park represents.
From the defense against William Walkers attempt to overtake Central
America, to the restoration of a national park that holds 2.6 percent of
the worlds biodiversity, fire holds vital significance in Costa Rica.
In 1856, a U.S. citizen named William Walker attempted to create a
republic in Central America. But Costa Rica wanted to remain
independent and declared a war on Walker to stop the republic.
Most people were against the war, said Johan Martinez, an
ecotourism guide at the Guanacaste Conservation Area. They thought
it was not their problem and that the decision of the government was a
big mistake.
After a major battle at Santa Rosa, a brave act by a young Costa Rican
named Juan Santamara marked a major turning point in the war when
he set fire to the building where Walker stayed in Rivas, Nicaragua.
Walker fled the inn because he no longer had enough gunpowder to
fight against the Costa Ricans.
This is considered a major moment in the national campaign to stop
William Walker, and today Santamara is a hero of the country for his
actions.
About one hundred years later, fire gave way to the restoration of
Santa Rosa National Park, which today is an essential part of Costa
Ricas identity.
Before it was a national park, Santa Rosa was known as a cattle ranch.
In the early 1900s, Costa Rican ranchers introduced an African species
of grass called jaragua in hopes of improving grazing, said Martinez.
Eventually, the jaragua overtook parts of the tropical dry forest
landscape.
To allow the rebirth of the forest, the jaragua had to be controlled to
stop the spread of fire. Today, park managers set controlled fires to an
experimental plot of jaragua grass for educational and protective
reasons.

The (controlled) fire has three purposes: it gives historical


perspective, it is a long-term experiment and it is a defense line
against potential forest fires, said Martinez.
Setting fire to the jaragua grass is an educational tool that informs
visitors of the history of conservation and the beginning of Santa
Rosas restoration.
In one specific experimental plot, biologists can compare the
vegetation in an unburned area with a burned area and track the
different species of plants that grow in the forest.
Finally, other jaragua plots are black lines that protect against the
spread of real forest fires in the park, said Martinez. If a forest fire were
to arise, firefighters know they could contain the fire at the specific
plots.
To maintain these black lines, a team of 12 firefighters from the Forest
Fire Protection Program sets controlled fires every year in parts of
Santa Rosa. This program has enabled the forest to restore itself.
In 1985, most of the park was jaragua grass, said park guard and
forest firefighter Sergio Cascante. Today, it is green forest during the
rainy season.
The connotation of fire as a powerful and determinant resource comes
to life in Santa Rosa. Without it, Central America might be a republic
full of pastureland as opposed to national parks and the home of
thousands of species.
Without fire, Costa Rica as we know it may never have existed.