Chile Faces Forest Fires

Monstrous wildfires continue to defy firefighters’ efforts and claim lives in central Chile, bringing about what officials have described as “the greatest fire disaster in [Chilean] history.” The flames have burned over 700,000 acres of forest, destroyed an entire village, and claimed ten lives.

Chilean officials report a combination of factors—namely wind, high temperatures, and a prolonged drought in the O’Higgins and Maule regions—to be responsible for such prolific blazes. Tall, inaccessible mountains and a government hobbled by political discord have complicated efforts to manage the blaze.

Though the origin of the wildfires is unknown, at least ten people have been arrested in connection to the disaster.

The flames have claimed the homes of 2,700 people and burned the entire village of Santa Olga in the Maule region. Firefighters and the military have evacuated over 4,000 people from their homes.

According to the National Emergency Bureau, 51 of 130 active fires have been contained, though the National Forest Corporation (CONAF) reports only one of those blazes extinguished. Chile has “practically exhausted its capacity to fight the blaze,” said President Michelle Bachelet in reference to the 4,000 personnel and 46 aircraft currently deployed in response to the disaster.

Chile has requested additional assistance from its neighbors and the international community. Mexico, France, and Portugal have all provided assistance in addition to firefighters sent from Colombia and a supertanker offered by the Russian government. The U.S. embassy in Santiago has donated $100,000 to CONAF for equipment while USAID and the U.S. Forest Service have sent a four-person team of advisors to assess and assist in maintaining the fires.

Most notable, however, is the $2 million Boeing 747 supertanker donated by the Walton Family Foundation run by Lucy Ana Walton de Aviles, Chilean-American philanthropist and wife to Benjamin Walton, a Walmart heir. The supertanker is capable of delivering 20,000 gallons of flame retardant, and its 12-man crew is currently active in the Maule region where the damage is worst.

Though wildfires are common during this time of year in Chile, a report published in the Journal of Global and Planetary Change has noted that the “pattern, frequency, and intensity” of fires in the country “has grown at an alarming rate.” If trends continue, the situation may indeed prove, as a local mayor described it, “a nightmare without end.”