Chile arrests Israeli tourist for forest fire
Prosecutor says traveler has acknowledged negligently allowing fire to start, burning 11,000 hectares of Patagonia park.
Last Modified: 01 Jan 2012 16:40
The fire has so far destroyed nearly four per cent of the total area of the national park [AFP]

Chilean officials arrested and later released on bond an Israeli tourist suspected of causing a forest fire that burned more than 11,000 hectares in the country's Torres de Paine national park in Patagonia.

Regional prosecutor Juan Melendez identified the traveler as Rotem Singer, 23, and said the man had acknowledged a role in negligently allowing the fire to start deep in the south of the country.

The government deployed four planes and a helicopter to the remote mountainous region, where 300 firefighters, soldiers and forest rangers continued to battle the blaze.

The fire, which began on Tuesday, advanced rapidly in dry conditions, forcing authorities to evacuate 700 people, mostly tourists, from the park, which is located about 3,000km south of Santiago.

Singer acknowledged that he did not properly extinguish a roll of toilet paper he had been burning, Melendez said after a hearing in Puerto Natales.

But Singer's family say they believe he is innocent and was being used as a "scapegoat".

"He could not have caused this disaster," Hezi Singer, his father, told Israeli military radio. "He was a kilometre away from the fire when his friends woke him up."

'Minor penalty'

Singer, who was held briefly and then freed pending trial, cannot leave the area and faces 41 to 60 days in jail and fines of $80 to $300, officials said.

"The problem was that paper was set on fire in a park, and it was not put out properly ... The penalty at the moment, for the infraction ... is a minor penalty," he added.

The fire broke out on a path that goes by Lake Grey on the northwestern side of the park, officials said.

A drop in the wind speed and higher humidity on Saturday helped slow the fire's rapid advance. It has so far destroyed nearly four per cent of the total area of the park, officials said.

The governor of Ultima Esperanza, Chile's southernmost province where the park is located, told Radio Cooperativa that the improved weather will finally let crews "battle the fire in a direct and frontal way".

However, Rodrigo Hinzpeter, the country’s interior minister, warned that weather conditions were likely to deteriorate again.

"This will remain, for the next days, a dangerous fire, violent and difficult to control," he said during a visit to the Office of National Emergency where firefighting operations are being co-ordinated.

Maria Ignacia Benitez, the environment minister, said the government would file a legal case against anyone found responsible for setting off the fire.

"This is clearly negligence on the part of tourists," she said.

"It may have been accidental ... but here there is also a responsibility of the people who do not respect the authorised [fire] areas."

'Throwing water on the flames'

On Friday, Sebastian Pinera, the country’s president, announced that the park, visited by more than 100,000 people each year, would remain shut throughout January.

Environmentalist group Accion Ecologica criticised what it said was the government's slow response to the wildfire, drawing an unfavourable comparison with its rapid crackdown on students protesting against education reforms.

"We would have liked to see a government as gifted at throwing water on the flames consuming our natural heritage as they are on citizens defending their rights," Luis Mariano Rendon, an activist, said.

Pinera pledged another 100 personnel would join crews on Saturday and said his government would seek "all necessary assistance" from other countries, having already contacted Argentina, Australia and the US.

Neighbouring Argentina, which has its own forests just across the border from Torres del Paine, has sent in emergency teams to help.

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