SantiagoIt’s been over 10 days of the same dynamic: a fire gets put out and another lights up a few miles away. Firemen, the military, and volunteers run from place to place, trying to suffocate the unleashed hell that is sweeping through the central parts of Chile, home of vineyards, farmlands, and the ecoregion of Mediterranean Chile, one of five climatic regions of its type in the world.
The disaster is such that Santa Olga, a town of 4,000 in the south, was completely overrun. People managed to escape with the clothes on their backs.
A number of factors have conspired against the central region of Chile, resulting in 77 active wildfires and 714,000 acres (289,000 hectares) burned. Extreme temperatures, planted forests, droughts, and minimal fire combat infrastructure have Chile burning and unique ecosystems on the verge of extinction.
Criticism of the authorities in response to the crisis has been arguably as violent as the wildfires. The government has been accused of reacting slowly and not having adequate equipment to face an emergency of this size, with half the firefighting plane fleet out of service due to lack of maintenance and mechanical problems.
The disaster is already being compared to the massive wildfires of Australia in 2009.
“The difference is that, in Australia, as in other Mediterranean areas of the world, fire is part of the ecologic dynamic of the ecosystem, a cycle as natural as rain,” says Fernanda Romero, the coordinator of the Natural Reserve of Altos de Cantillana, a site that is currently threatened by the flames.
“Many plant species adapt to such a point that they need fire to propagate,” he adds. “In central Chile it’s different, species are not adapted to it, and with each fire incredibly valuable habitat is lost, since they were already confined to restricted areas as a result of being located in the most densely populated part of the country.”
Chile’s government has already started an investigation into the cause of the wildfires, some of which could have been caused by negligence and others intentionally, they have said. Firemen have even reported being attacked with pellet guns by unseen assailants.
But beyond the way the fires started, there has been a heated discussion on the underlying reasons for the size of the chaos. Now in the midst of summer, the region has been hit by heatwaves that have broken every historic temperature record in the area. Strong winds and minimal humidity have made perfect conditions to expand the flames in a territory suffering droughts for the past eight years.
Some scientists say the drought has been made worse by vast, dense pine and eucalyptus plantations, since the trees are water hungry and have sucked up large amounts of groundwater.
Pine and eucalyptus are especially flammable, since they are rich in volatile resins that light up easily, says Sebastián Teillier, a botanist and author of several publications on Chilean vegetation.
“The situation was already hazardous form a safety standpoint, what was lacking was a great spark and it was provided by two weeks of temperatures over 30°C,” says Teillier. “It is perhaps proof that global climate change has already caught up with us and is here to stay. If so, the industrial forest model has to be questioned by the companies, the government, and the community at large.”