Thousands of Chile’s poorest displaced in wildfires

Jan. 26 - Firefighters from the Tarapacá region loading supplies before traveling to southern Chile to fight wildfires. (Gobierno Regional Tarapacá/Flickr)

The worst wildfires in Chile’s modern history are dying down, but have left thousands of people displaced from their homes in some of the poorest regions of the country.

For the moment, no new blazes have been reported ”and the rest are mostly controlled,” President Michelle Bachelet said in her daily briefing on the wildfires on Saturday. “… That doesn’t mean, however, that we are letting down our guard.”

The fires left 11 dead, 6,370 affected and 1,603 homes destroyed, according to the latest report from Chile’s Interior Ministry. The government said Friday that the preliminary cost of the forest fires has reached around $333 million.

Most of the expenses will be to pay for the reconstruction of homes, said Finance Minister Rodrigo Valdes, which the government will finance by diverting some $100 million dollars from its budget and the Social Economic Stabilization Fund (FEES).

South-central Chile was hit the hardest, according to reports. Drought-afflicted towns blazed across the regions of Maule and Bío Bío, which have some of the highest poverty rates in the country (16.2 and 21.5 percent, respectively).

One hard-hit village of 7,000 in south-central Chile, Santa Olga, was completely demolished by the flames.

“We have lost between 800 and 1000 houses,” said Carlos Valenzuela, mayor of nearby city of Constitución. “… This drama overthrows all that we have gained, but we are going to rise again.”

The region was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami that struck Chile in 2010. But nearly six years of efforts and slow development were destroyed by the fires almost overnight.

Since the emergency remains active, officials say they have not yet determined the total number of people displaced nor the full impact on livelihoods and public health. But a situation report from the U.N. on January 31 warned of losses to livestock and subsistence agriculture, as well as damage to some water systems in rural sectors, such as Santa Olga and the town of Portezuelo in Bío Bío.

Wildfires are common in Chile during the southern hemisphere’s summer, but this year was worse due to a drought experts attribute to climate change. Since July, more than 2,300 square miles in Chile have been incinerated by the fires, which experts have rated the seventh worst in the world’s history.

Last week, there were more than 70 active blazes in the country. Yesterday, the Ministry of Agriculture said that number was down to 32, only six of which were still not contained.

Rain and falling temperatures in some areas have helped stop the fires, and international aid has been crucial, according to Max Planck de Química, an expert at the German organization World Center for Fire Monitoring.

“In the current case in Chile, this assistance has not only consisted of high-level fire management officers, but also firefighters, financial aid, equipment, airplanes and more,” Planck said in an interview with Tele13 Radio on Friday. “Large aircraft, such as the North American Global Supertanker B-747 and the Russian II-76, or the Brazilian C-130, are making a big difference.”

NPR reported that at least 15 countries sent people to help fight the wildfires, the majority coming from Panama, Russia, Colombia, Brazil, Portugal, Mexico, Peru, Spain, France, and Venezuela. Argentina alone supplied 130 people on the ground in Chile as of last Wednesday.

One of the most recent contributions was from the United Arab Emirates, which donated $5 million in aid, Chile’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced Monday on Twitter. And the U.S. government contributed $840,000, which NPR reports included funds used to purchase personal hygiene kits for residents of Santa Olga.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com