Chile’s president urges unity amid battle to contain fatal fires

International assistance is arriving as Chile struggles to control hundreds of wildfires that have scorched communities.

Deadly wildfires continue to burn in Chile as President Gabriel Boric has called for unity and resolve in response to the destruction of more than 1,000 homes and hundreds of thousands of hectares of land across south-central regions of the country.

Authorities said on Monday that conditions conducive to the spread of the fires, which have consumed 270,000 hectares (667,184 acres) and left at least 24 people dead so far, would persist this week.

The blazes are the deadliest in the South American nation in recent years and have already made 2023 the second-worst year on record in terms of hectares burned. Chile’s National Forestry Corporation reported that as of Monday morning, 275 fires remained active.

“Unity to face the tragedy, unity to rebuild ourselves. That has been and will always be the path in the face of adversity in our Chile,” Boric wrote on Twitter.

The Chilean authorities said on Sunday that at least 1,182 people were injured in the wildfires, which have been fanned by strong winds and temperatures that reached above 40 degrees Celsius (104F). Nearly 1,100 homes also were destroyed.

A swing in a destroyed area in Santa Juana, Chile, after a wildfire
A swing is seen after a wildfire burned areas of Santa Juana, Chile on February 5, 2023 [Juan Gonzalez/Reuters]

Maria Ines Hernandez, a 55-year-old social worker in Santa Juana, a town about 53km (33 miles) south of Concepcion in the hard-hit Biobio region, said many houses in the area were reduced to ashes, leaving residents unsure of where to turn.

“It is a miracle that some of the houses were spared,” Hernandez told the AFP news agency. “Now we are afraid that the fire will return … Where will we find refuge? Where? How?”

International aid and personnel began arriving on Sunday from Spain, Argentina and Mexico, while more assistance was expected from several countries in the region, including Brazil, Colombia, Paraguay, Venezuela and Peru.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said late on Sunday that 180 specialists trained in controlling wildfires had left for Chile to help the nation’s civil protection agency get the blazes under control.

Meanwhile, the Portuguese government said on Monday that it was ready to send 140 firefighters to help battle the wildfires, but that it would wait for a response from Chile on its capacity to accommodate the contingent.

Chilean officials said a so-called Ten Tanker plane featuring a 36,000-litre firefighting capacity was expected to arrive on Monday, as well.

Over the weekend, Chile issued emergency declarations for the largely rural southern regions of Biobio, Nuble and Araucania in an effort to speed up relief. The areas are home to extensive forests as well as farms that grow grapes and other fruit for export.

Chile firefighters take a break from fighting wildfires
Firefighters take a break in Santa Juana, Chile on February 5, 2023 [Juan Gonzalez/Reuters]

Speaking from the city of Puren in Araucania on Sunday, President Boric stressed that his administration would provide all necessary resources, while he also sought to inspire solidarity in the face of the deadly wildfires.

“I’ve seen the resiliency of our people, and it’s exactly that spirit that has to guide us during this difficult time,” he said. “All together, we’ll come out of this ahead.”

Some of the areas burned in the fires are poor and isolated, and beset with violent clashes between Mapuche Indigenous people on one hand and the government, timber companies and private landowners on the other.

Miguel Angel Henriquez, a 58-year-old farmer in Santa Juana, said he and his wife deliberated too long over whether to escape the approaching flames and are lucky to be alive. “We waited until the end, but the fire cut us off on all sides,” he told AFP.

They went back in the direction from which they had started and ran into firefighters, neighbours and police. “As the fire approached I told them, ‘Either we get out of here now or we die right here.’ We hid behind the firetruck,” Henriquez said.

He added that he saw a neighbour brave the flames to try to rescue some of his animals. “He did not come out. I yelled at him to come out of the fire, but he didn’t listen.”

Source: News Agencies