The country of Chile is currently in the midst of what its president has described as the nation’s “greatest tragedy” since the devastating earthquake that occurred in 2010. For a period spanning over three days, the South American country has been grappling with violent fires that have been raging in the coastal and tourist region of Valparaíso. This devastating event has already resulted in the loss of several dozen lives, a number that is feared to continue rising.
The forest fires commenced on Friday and have since enveloped the tourist regions of Viña del Mar and Valparaíso in smoke. These areas are situated approximately 120 km north of Santiago, the country’s capital. As of Sunday evening, there were still around forty active fires in the region. Additionally, numerous outbreaks have also been detected in other areas of the country, including O’Higgins in the center, as well as Maule, Biobío, L’Araucanía, and Los Lagos in the south.
By Monday evening, the death toll had risen to 122, as reported by the Chilean Forensic Service (SML). All the victims were located in the Valparaiso region. Of these, only 32 bodies have been identified so far. Chilean President Gabriel Boric has already issued a warning that the final toll is expected to be even higher, stating, “We know that it will increase significantly.”
In addition to this devastating loss of life, several hundred people are reported missing, according to Macarena Ripamonti, the mayor of the resort town of Viña del Mar, and Rodrigo Mundaca, the governor of the Valparaíso region.
In response to this tragedy, President Boric declared two days of national mourning starting on Monday, stating, “The whole of Chile is mourning Valaparaiso.”
On a material level, the fires have resulted in nearly 26,000 ha being reduced to ashes. Entire residential areas have been devastated, with vehicles being burned as well.
Reason for High Human Toll
These forest fires are already among the deadliest of the 21st century. The toll is high because the fire reached densely populated areas, primarily in Viña del Mar. In this area and others, families were living in crowded conditions in lightweight constructions, sometimes on land intended to serve as a firebreak, according to authorities and experts.
The lightweight materials used for these constructions, such as wood or fiber cement, have unfortunately served as excellent fuel for the fires. Flames have raced through the narrow streets of the hills, igniting entire rows of cars parked in front of houses, survivors say.
There are also outstanding questions regarding the functioning of the evacuation orders that were sent to the mobile phones of the affected individuals. Horacio Gilabert, from the Center for Global Change at the Catholic University of Chile, has stated, “The alarms were triggered, but the evacuation apparently did not work (…). The emphasis is on combat, but not on prevention (…) and I think that is a gap.”
Cause of the Fires
President Gabriel Boric has revealed that the possibility of the fires being intentionally started is currently under investigation. According to data from Chile’s National Forestry Council (Conaf), 99.7% of fires are caused either deliberately or through negligence. In this case, “outbreaks occurred simultaneously, which is completely abnormal,” notes Professor Castillo.
The climate crisis has also played a role in the spread of the fires. Chile, currently in the midst of its southern summer, has been experiencing a heatwave since last week, with temperatures reaching 40°C. The southern cone of America is currently suffocating under these scorching temperatures.
According to Professor Miguel Castillo, from the Faculty of Forestry Sciences at the University of Chile, wind and high temperatures form a “harmful” combination. When vegetation or waste burns, it generates light, hot air, “which raises flaming particles or sparks which travel hundreds of meters, causing satellite fires,” he explains. The flames then accelerate “on the slopes and with the help of the wind”, which makes them increasingly dangerous.
Climatologist Raúl Cordero, in a study recently published in the journal Nature’s Scientific Reports, adds, “A change of a few degrees in the tropical Pacific can make the difference between a relatively calm forest fire season and a widespread disaster.” Last year, Chile experienced an atypical period of rain amid a prolonged drought. This led to the emergence of scrubland, which serves as perfect fuel for a wildfire.
These fires represent “the greatest tragedy we have experienced since the 2010 earthquake,” according to Gabriel Boric. He was referring to the 8.8 magnitude earthquake that was followed by a tsunami on February 27, 2010, which resulted in the death of more than 500 people.
Approximately 1,400 firefighters and 1,300 soldiers and volunteers, supported by 31 helicopters and planes capable of dropping water, are currently mobilized to fight the flames. President Boric, who has increased the budget devoted to fire prevention and fighting by 47% during his almost two years in power, declared a state of emergency in order to mobilize as many resources as possible.
In certain areas of Valparaíso, a curfew has been established to clear the roads for the rapid passage of emergency vehicles and to facilitate evacuations.
However, experts have indicated that Chile still needs to review and modernize its strategy to deal with disasters of this magnitude. For instance, the country does not have the resources to fight fires at night. “Therefore, the probability that all the work done during the day will be lost during the night is very high,” emergency management expert Michel De L’Herbe told Cooperativa radio.