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LATIN AMERICA | 09-02-2023 17:13

Chile declares curfew in fire-ravaged regions

Chile's fires remain uncontrolled one week in, despite relentless efforts. Flames have claimed lives of 24, injured 2,180, and completely destroyed 1,180 homes and left 5,560 people homeless.

Chile on Thursday announced a nighttime curfew in south-central regions where forest fires have raged for more than a week, leaving at least 24 people dead.

The midnight-to-5.00 am curfew will come into effect on Friday in 28 municipalities in the hard-hit regions of Biobío, Ñuble y La Araucanía, said Biobío military chief Jorge Keitel.

The move seeks to prevent theft and looting in the affected regions while some 5,600 Chilean firefighters, backed by experts from Mexico, Colombia, Spain and Argentina among other countries, battle 90 priority fires out of 323 still active.

The efforts suffered a setback Thursday when a US Ten Tanker sent to Chile to help suffered mechanical issues for the second time this week.

The plane can dump some 36,000 litres of water.

The flames are being fuelled by temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) in many regions amid severe drought conditions, and officials fear the blazes could spread to other regions.

The fires have left 24 people dead and more than 2,000 injured while burning more than 300,000 hectares (741,316 acres) of forest and completely destroying 1,180 homes, leaving 5,560 people homeless.

About 20 people have been arrested on suspicion of having set some of the fires.

 

'Guarantee safety'

On Wednesday, President Gabriel Boric said a curfew was necessary "to guarantee the safety of people affected by the emergency."

General Ruben Castillo, the military chief for La Araucania, said Thursday the curfew implied restrictions to public transport, "especially in Malleco province," one of the provinces most affected by clashes between state forces and groups from the Mapuche indigenous community.

Fighting for the restoration of ancestral lands seized by the Chilean state more than a century ago and now in the hands of logging companies, the Mapuches have been accused of carrying out arson attacks on private property.

A week after a wave of fires broke out in south-central Chile, the blaze is far from being brought under control and the forecast of high temperatures, dryness and winds does not promise an easy end to the flames.

More than 5,600 forestry brigades and volunteer firefighters, assisted by contingents from Mexico, Colombia and Spain, are working to extinguish 89 of the 311 active fires, the worst figures since the beginning of the current crisis.

Argentina is sending its neighbour 64 brigades of rapid fire-fighting trucks, attack kits, fire engines as well as the Canadian Boeing CH-47 "Chinook" helicopter to fight the fires in Chile, according to the country's Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development.

"We are entering this part of the week which is the most complex. Today, tomorrow and the day after we have a high temperature alert in several regions of the country that has mobilised a very large effort (...) to prevent the fires from spreading," said Interior Minister Carolina Tohá on Wednesday.

"If the temperature rises and the wind increases, we can indeed have more problems, and we already have many fires," Lieutenant-Colonel Carlos Javier Martín Traverso, the head of the Spanish military contingent which arrived in Chile last Sunday to help with the firefighting effort, told AFP.

The flames have devastated more than 309,000 hectares in the regions of Maule, Ñuble, Biobío and La Araucanía, an area equivalent to a third of the territory of Puerto Rico.

Chilean President Gabriel Boric announced Wednesday evening that a curfew will be imposed in the three regions devastated by the fire. However, the specific zones and timetable will be decided by the military chiefs of each region.

"The government considers it necessary to establish curfews" in order to "guarantee the safety of the people who have been affected by the emergency," the president said.

"We still have to brace ourselves against the fire (...). At the end of the day I have no doubt that we will have done a lot, but we have to see how it evolves," Traverso stressed.

The military explained the country is experiencing multiple factors that "trigger the probability of having a fire of great magnitude, virulence and power." 

"We are talking about the triple 30: relative humidity below 30 percent, temperature above 30 ºC and winds of more than 30 kilometres per hour. If that happens "we will have problems containing the fire."

There is scientific consensus that the start of fires in Chile is almost entirely the responsibility of humans, either intentionally or through neglect. 

 

Pine plantations

The drought that has plagued Chile for the last 13 years is one of the main factors contributing to the aggressiveness of the fires. It is "the heavy fuel" because "the more humid the trees are, the more resistant they can be to fire," said Traverso.

But the enormous presence of forestry plantations, of pine and eucalyptus monocultures, has also been added to the discussion of the causes of these fires.

"The companies are important, but the call is to regulate this with laws," declared the mayor of Purén (La Araucanía), Jorge Rivera, on Monday, explaining the situation in his municipality, one of the hardest-hit by the flames.

A day later, the Chilean Timber Corporation (Corma), which brings together forestry entrepreneurs, came out in response. Silvia Hormazábal, from Corma's Prevention and Protection Department, said that fire does not discriminate.

"To say that the fires are spreading because of the plantations is not very accurate; they do contribute because all the fuel is burned, but to say that it is the sole responsibility of the plantations is a mistake," she said in an interview with Cooperativa radio station.

Miguel Castillo, a professor at the University of Chile's Forest Fires Laboratory, told AFP that tree monocultures have had an "impact" on the current crisis.

For Castillo, monocultures helped "the rapid spread once the fire started", but they were not the cause, at least not the only one.

"I see fires burning inside and outside the forest plantations," Traverso said on his second day on the ground in Chile. "It's not just commercial plantations which are burning. It's burning the forest in general, the landscape in general," he said.

 

– TIMES/AFP

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