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Fire in Chile: 131 Dead and 43.000 Hectares Burned

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Fire Chile
Fire in Chile: 131 dead and 43.000 hectares burned – Credit: @BomberosdeChile / X

The fire that has been raging in Chile since last Friday, February 2, has already left 131 people dead and 43,000 hectares of forest burned in the province of Valparaiso. The fire has destroyed around 2,000 houses in the region, leaving many people homeless in what President Gabriel Boric describes as the “greatest tragedy” to befall the country in recent years.

Interface fires

The occurrence of “interface” fires, named for their presence in both forested and urban areas, has intensified the tragedy. Experts pinpoint Valparaíso’s hillsides as a high-risk zone, attributing this to the dense clustering of homes amidst trees and vegetation. These areas are notably dry, making them highly susceptible to fires.

Many of these homes are made from wood or zinc—materials known for being highly flammable. This explains the severe impact of fires in this region of Chile, as the homes can catch fire as easily as the surrounding vegetation.

The Chilean government has officially reported 131 deaths, with nearly 150 individuals still missing, raising concerns for their safety. Additionally, over 2,000 homes have been completely destroyed, displacing residents and making them reliant on public assistance. Despite this, reports indicate that the damage to infrastructure in Viña del Mar is even more extensive, though specific details have yet to be provided.

On the other hand, only 32 of the 131 fatalities so far have been identified. According to Chile’s Forensic Medical Service, around 83 autopsies have been performed and only 10 bodies have been handed over to their families.

The difficulty in identifying some of the bodies is slowing down an already dramatic process and is keeping the population in a state of shock, given the seriousness of what has happened, which has exposed the lack of an early warning system for this specific type of catastrophe.

Chile has a well-structured tsunami warning service, as demonstrated when a tsunami hit the country after the 2010 earthquake. However, although forest fires are common during the summers, Chile does not have a relevant warning service.

Fire Chile
Fires in Chile as seen from a helicopter – Credit: @BomberosdeChile / X

A social and urban planning problem

What is happening in Valparaiso highlights a social and urban planning problem. Once again, tragedy has struck vulnerable sectors of the population, who have been forced by poverty to build houses with unsuitable materials in very vulnerable areas, such as the hillsides of this central region of the country.

Valparaíso is already a high-risk area. The houses in the region are located mainly on the slopes of the mountains, where landslides with tragic consequences are common. There are 44 hills that form a kind of natural amphitheater overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and its colorful houses and viewpoints make it an impressive sight.

A little more than a hundred kilometers from the capital, the port of Valparaiso is one of the most important cities in Chile and one of its main tourist attractions, but it is also a city that has experienced countless misfortunes in its history.

Several studies speak of the “considerable vulnerability” in some of the constructions and even count 1500 houses that are at risk of collapse in the city. The construction on terraces and using earth retaining walls do not enhance the stability of these constructions either.

In addition to landslides and humidity, this weekend’s tragedy highlights the urgent need for public intervention to avoid more tragedies of this magnitude, such as the one the country is lamenting today.

Fire Chile
The port city of Valparaiso, Chile, in a 2019 image – Credit: Carlos Teixidor Cadena / CC BY-SA 4.0

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