Chile is currently battling the worst forest fires that the country has faced in living memory.
The fires have spread across much of the central and Southern O’Higgins, Maule Biobio and Araucanía regions in recent months, fuelled by the current ’30-30-30′ weather conditions (30°c heat, less than 30% humidity and 30 mph winds) and the droughts that have plagued the centre of the country over the past eight years.
Although forest fires are normal in some areas during the summer months, this year’s spate has now destroyed more property and land than any other year on record. According to Chile’s National Forestry Corporation (CONAF), more than 300,000 hectares of land has now been burnt to the ground and, in perhaps the most poignant image of the grief caused by the blazes, the entire town of Santa Olga has been razed to the ground by the flames.
Although most Santa Olga residents were safely evacuated before the fires struck, more than 1000 buildings have been destroyed, leaving nothing more than a black mark on the landscape. The mayor of the Municipality where the town was located, Carlos Valenzuela, told the Guardian that the flames were like ‘Dante’s Inferno’.
The humanitarian cost of the fires has been immense. Chilean newspaper La Tercera reports that 11 people have died, more than 2000 have been left homeless and over 3200 have been injured. A major international effort is now underway to help contain the flames – both the US and Russia have sent ‘supertanker’ aeroplanes to help fight the fires from above, while France has sent brigades of firefighters and a team of more than 70 experts to help on the ground. Peru, Brazil, Mexico and Colombia have also sent help.
Chileans have also come together to help those displaced by the flames as well as those firefighters volunteering to help fight them. Campaigns have been organised to send donations of none-perishable food, blankets and other useful items to those most in need. The Chilean division of Coca Cola has suspended advertising of their products to donate their marketing budget to the relief effort. The company is also encouraging its consumers to make donations to a public fund to help those affected.
A government spokesperson told La Tercera that although the majority of incidents had been caused by recent heatwave conditions, some had also been caused intentionally and that those responsible would be punished by the fullest extent of the law. The fires have also sparked a political debate in Chile ahead of upcoming presidential elections this November, with some raising concerns about the impact that human behaviour and practices have had on the country’s forested areas. Some residents of the destroyed town criticised the response of politicians, accusing them of only visiting communities outside of the capital Santiago during election campaigns.
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has now declared a national state of emergency as emergency services continue to try and control the blazes. She also promised to redouble the governments’ efforts to combat the flames and distribute aid to those in need. With the revelation that the largest 1% of the fires are responsible for 70% of the damage and many communities still at risk, these words are unlikely to reassure those in the path of the flames.