The central Chilean port city of Valparaíso remained under military control as of April 15, three days after forest fires began sweeping into some of the city's working-class neighborhoods, leaving at least 15 people dead and destroying 2,900 homes. Interior Minister Rodrigo Penailillo said the government hoped to have the fires under control by April 16, but the national forestry agency indicated that it might take the 5,000 firefighters and other personnel in the city as long as 20 days to extinguish the fires completely. Some 12,500 are now without homes in Valparaíso; this disaster follows an 8.2-magnitude earthquake in northern Chile that killed five people on April 1 and made 2,635 homes uninhabitable.
Declared a World Heritage City in 2004 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Valparaíso is located in an area prone to forest fires. But experts and reporters said the extent of the devastation resulted less from natural conditions than from political failures. Witnesses reported that the firefighters–all unpaid volunteers, according to Chilean historian Sergio Grez–were slow to arrive when the fires started on the afternoon of April 12, and they were equipped only with shovels and one truck. Driven by strong winds, the fires spread quickly through the close-packed wooden structures in the poorer neighborhoods, made vulnerable by decades of unplanned growth. Roads were often too narrow for fire engines, and there was no running water for fire hoses in the affected areas. Helicopters came with water hours later.
"We have been the builders and architects of our own dangers," Valparaíso mayor Jorge Castro admitted on April 13. Chilean president Michelle Bachelet told the national daily El Diario de Cooperativa on April 15 that her government would try "to rebuild in a more orderly manner." "It's not enough to reinstall houses or support families," she said. "We have to do something more substantive." (El Mostrador, Chile, April 14; Les InRocks, France, April 14; US News & World Report, April 15, from AP)
From Weekly News Update on the Americas, April 20.
See our last post on the politics of fire.