By Emily O’Connor
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 Walker’s attempt to overtake Central America, to the restoration of a national park that holds 2.6 percent of the world’s 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 Santamaría marked a major turning point in the war when he set fire to the building where Walker stayed in Rivas, Nicaragua. Walker fled 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 Santamaría 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 Rica’s 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 Rosa’s 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.