What motivates people, when faced with adversity, to stop and keep going, with an innate attitude that is almost instantaneous? And what motivates the world to come to their aid? Throughout its history, Chile has faced numerous situations in which nature has put it to the test. The latest is a megafire that has affected the southern part of the country. Since early February, it has claimed 26 lives and consumed more than 450,000 hectares (1.1 million acres), destroying native flora and fauna at a scale that cannot yet be fully measured.
The impact of the catastrophe
High temperatures, strong winds, a drought that has lasted more than 13 years and human action have caused 450,000 hectares in the Maule, Ñuble, Biobío and La Araucanía regions to be razed in just two weeks. The cost has been 26 deaths, at least 20,404 dead animals, 3,247 people needing medical treatment, 7,526 people affected and more than 2,000 homes destroyed.
“We are facing a situation in which 75% of the municipality has been affected. Among the ashes, we are still fighting a fire that has worn us down, in which we have lost lives, and that today has three regions completely under flames.” This is how the mayoress of Santa Juana, Ana Albornoz, described the effects of the catastrophe on the town that she presides over, one of the most affected by the emergency.
Just six years ago, in the summer of 2017, a heat wave combined with human action caused a series of fires that affected Chile’s central and southern zones, leaving 587,000 hectares (1.45 million acres) consumed by fire and ten fatal victims. Many people who suffered because of this fire at the time have once again been displaced as a result of the flames.
A coordinated response
“Uncontrolled fires, a lot of rural areas, many children, animals and the elderly.” This is how the captain of the First Fire Company of Osorno, Erwin Vargas, described the scene after responding to the call for help from Collipulli in La Araucanía Region, one of the places affected by the fire. However, he also highlighted the support received from the population. “They filled us with that positive energy that Chileans have when situations like this happen, when we come together and join up to face the situation,” he added.
Credit: Bomberos de Chile
On February 7, five days after the first red alert was declared, more than 2,200 brigade members from the National Forestry Corporation (CONAF) and forestry companies, in addition to 3,400 firefighters from all over the country, had arrived from different regions to combat the emergency.
The authorities now speak of figures that exceed 6,000 national troops, including brigade members, volunteer firefighters, the Armed Forces, Policía de Investigaciones (Investigative police service, PDI) and Public Works Ministry personnel, who are carrying out rescue operations and controlling the flames. The private forestry sector has contributed 61 aircraft, 3,400 brigade members, 240 detection points and 2,100 forestry workers.
“Emergencies put countries to the test and I believe that, in this difficult, hard, complex situation, public and private institutions have shown that they are capable of coordinating and investing all the necessary resources to fight the fires,” stated Interior Undersecretary Manuel Monsalve during an assessment on Sunday, February 12.
Techo Chile, Hogar de Cristo, ADRA, Comunidad de Organizaciones Solidarias and Movidos por Chile are just some of the organizations that are now helping the victims, joining more than a hundred institutions already involved.
“In just a few days, thanks to the great spirit of solidarity that always represents Chile, we have received more than 9,000 donations from companies and individuals. It is important to remember that our work does not end here, but that this is just the starting point to make sure that the whole of the south of our country can get back on its feet,” said the CEO of Desafío Levantemos Chile, Ignacio Serrano, through a statement from the institution.
In the Biobío Region, the Nonguén neighborhood council started collecting food and supplies for the troops in the area. “We have articulated a lot of help, coordinating in collection centers taking water and non-perishable food to the communities that need it most, such as Santa Juana, Tomé and the Nonguén National Park,” stated the coordinator of the Nonguén neighborhood council, Fabian Vega.
The other victims of the forest fires have been animals, a situation that has mobilized independent veterinarians and NGOs from the different parts of the country to help rescue and provide medical attention. In rural Santa Juana, the municipality has worked to help pets and animals. “As the days have gone by, the situation has been getting better. Different municipalities have coordinated with each other. Chileans have been coming with their flags on their cars to leave water, food and other supplies,” explains Estefanía Toloza, an independent veterinarian who has been collaborating with the municipality.
To Chile, from the world
The emergency affecting the country has provoked a solidarity that has crossed borders. Different countries have sent messages of support and expert personnel to contribute to controlling the flames. From the European Union, countries like France, Portugal, Spain and Italy have responded to the call made in the first week of February by President Gabriel Boric and the Foreign Affairs Ministry to the international community, contributing knowledge and brigade members.
“As in 2017, we have responded quickly to fight side by side with brigade members and firefighters, a sign of our commitment to the Chilean people,” stated Lieutenant Colonel of the Spanish Air Force, Carlos Javier Martín Traverso, head of the Emergency Military Unit (UME) in Chile.
Similarly, countries of the American continent such as Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico and the United States have shown their support, sending brigade members, firefighters and even aircraft. From Asia, China and Japan have spoken out in support of the communities affected by the fires, and organizations such as the UN and NASA have helped by sending personnel and providing satellite images of the fires.
“Evaluations were carried out with unmanned aircraft, as well as full clearance of the secondary fires that were present in this sector. We put in all our effort, all our strength and desire, to support our firefighting comrades in Chile,” said Second Lieutenant Eddy Chiliquinga from the Quito Metropolitan District Fire Department.
More than 800 brigade members have joined national troops in rescue and fire control work, in addition to aircraft, vehicles and equipment.
The reconstruction begins
International Brigade Member Day was commemorated on February 15. Chile’s Government organized a ceremony to acknowledge the team that has responded to the emergency, and thanked the international community for its collaboration.
The support that Chile has received from abroad has been key in the midst of the emergency, something that has been expressed by the different authorities. “We have been moved to receive the collaboration and assistance of dozens of countries and international organizations since the start of the emergency. They have provided us with resources, tools and, in particular, personnel specialized in fire control, which has been essential to support the work of our own public and private brigade members,” stated Foreign Affairs Minister Antonia Urrejola.
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