‘A Nightmare Without An End’: Wildfires Burn Out Of Control In Chile

The government of Chile says wildfires that have killed at least 10 people are the worst blazes in the country’s history.

Several firefighters are among the dead.

“We have never seen anything on this scale, never in the history of Chile,” President Michelle Bachelet said earlier this week, after her administration declared a state of emergency. “The truth is that the forces are doing everything humanly possible and will continue until they can contain and control the fires.”

Reporting from Rio de Janeiro, NPR’s Philip Reeves said Thursday that hundreds of thousands of acres have been destroyed in the southern and central parts of the country and that an entire town was incinerated. “Reports say flames ripped through a place called Santa Olga, burning down its kindergarten, post office and about 1,000 homes,” he said.

At least one body was recovered from the ashes in Santa Olga, according to Deutsche Welle, and about 6,000 residents fled the city as the flames moved in.

“This is an extremely serious situation — of horror, a nightmare without an end,” the mayor of the coastal city of Constitucion told the German broadcaster. “Everything burned.”

The fast-spreading flames have laid waste to forests and vineyards, Phil reported. Chile is a major exporter of wine and grapes and has a growing timber market.

While fires are common in Chile at this time of year, “these have taken on disastrous proportions, thanks to prolonged drought, strong winds and unusually hot weather,” Phil said.

In addition to local weather patterns, which themselves are shaped by global climate change, a review of Chile’s wildfires published in November in the journal Global and Planetary Change warned the “pattern, frequency and intensity” of wildfires in the country “has grown at an alarming rate” in recent years, in part because of intensive forest management practices that led to a large amount of flammable fuel in the country’s forests.

As of Thursday morning, Chile’s National Emergency Bureau was tracking 100 active fires covering about 920 square miles, 30 of which have been contained, according to The New York Times.

The newspaper reported:

“In total, 4,000 people — including firefighters, troops and national forestry bureau officers — and 46 aircraft have been deployed to combat the fires, according to the National Emergency Bureau.

“Some residents, lacking any training or protective gear, have used tree branches and bottles of water to try to douse the flames.”

The Chilean government has appealed for international help. The U.S. Embassy in Santiago said earlier this week that the U.S. government was donating $100,000 “for the local procurement and delivery of firefighting equipment, such as chainsaws and weather monitoring tools requested by the National Forestry Corporation.”

The U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Forest Service sent four people to “assess the situation and advise local authorities.”

On Wednesday, a privately owned Boeing 747 “supertanker” plane arrived in Santiago to help control the fires from the air. Such planes are capable of dumping 20,000 gallons of flame retardant, Wired magazine reported.

The aircraft is owned by Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Global SuperTanker Services, according to The Gazette newspaper.

The paper reported that the mission, including a 12-person crew, was paid for by Fundación Viento Sur, which is part of the Walton Family Foundation and run by Ben Walton and his Chilean-native wife, Lucy Ana Walton de Avilés. The New York Times reported the price tag for the supertanker was $2 million.

The plane is being deployed in the Maule region, north of the destroyed town of Santa Olga, according to Deutsche Welle.

 

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