Chile in Flames

By Christian Scheinpflug / Photos by Mohsin Abbas

Chile is burning. Wildfires have ravaged the country for weeks and, according to official figures from January 27, consumed 361,500 hectares and rising. 135 fires have been registered, of which 71 are being combatted, and 59 are under control. So far, 11 people died — civilians, firefighters, and police officers (Carabineros).

The carnage the flames inflict have prompted questions about the effectiveness of Chile’s institutions, the country’s boon up to now.

Outside help is rolling in since Wednesday. First was the so-called Supertanker, a Boeing 747 modified to extinguish massive wildfires. The plane arrived after clearing bureaucratic hurdle, CONAF, the privately run but public agency (a curiosity of the corporatised state) set up, because it feared the plane could de-legitimise it. The Supertanker was offered by Lucy Ana Avilés, Chilean-born wife of Walmart heir Benjamin Walton, whose company is coincidentally under investigation for tax evasion in the country. Moreover, by the end of the week Mexico, Colombia, Russia, Peru, Argentina, and the European Union had sent equipment, personnel, and airplanes to combat the inferno.

These reinforcements, however, came too late for the small town of Santa Olga, located about 150 km southeast of Concepción in the southern Bío Bío Region. Santa Olga was ordered to evacuate around 22 o’clock on January 25, in light of fast approaching flames. Barely eight hours later, the entire town, 1,000 homes, had vanished in the flames leaving two people dead.

Mayors of nearly every community affected complain publicly and vocally that government response came slowly, thus delaying the arrival of needed resources to face the fires early on.

The carnage the flames inflict have prompted questions about the effectiveness of Chile’s institutions, the country’s boon up to now. Mayors of nearly every community affected complain publicly and vocally that government response came slowly, thus delaying the arrival of needed resources to face the fires early on.

Juan Pablo Barros Basso is the mayor of Curacaví, a rural town of 30,000 about 50 km west of Downtown Santiago. Photo by Mohsin Abbas / The Santiago Times

Juan Pablo Barros Basso echoes these complaints. He is the mayor of Curacaví, a rural town of 30,000 about 50 km west of Downtown Santiago. The bushfires there produce so much smoke that the inhabitants of Santiago’s outer suburb Pudahuel, often can’t see the sun and, which regularly shrouds even the entire capital. 25 per cent of the fires around Curacaví are inactive, which means they simmer and don’t pose threat, but could rise again at any moment.

According to Mr Barros Basso the first fires broke out on January 18, quickly consuming two houses. After that, he demanded the government to raise the alarm to ‘yellow,’ but his pleas went unheeded for several days. Partially as result of such sluggishness, the flames have consumed around 5600 hectares of community land and six houses. Mr Barros Basso said that official support had been forthcoming eventually, but remains inadequate.

Curacaví received a total of four helicopters, of which one is currently under repair. Furthermore, Carabineros and an Army infantry brigade are supporting the regular firefighters. Yet, says Mr Barros Basso, his resources suffice only to contain the fire; he seemed under no illusions that the community actually could defeat the flames.

Talking to Chileans, many agree that the organisational structure of the firefighters is especially deficient. Firefighters, although professionals, most are volunteers only. They have to pay individually for their uniforms and gear, and it’s normal to see firefighters begging for money in the street to keep their company afloat. This particular structure stems from the extreme neoliberalisation of the state and fused with a widespread irrational belief — reinforced by extreme libertarians — that paying firefighters would diminish their honour. This way, the state can keep taxes low as it saves expenditure in the short-term, but when disaster strikes the costs show up in the form of scorched land, property, and lives. And that’s in addition to the strain imposed on firefighters themselves as well as local businesses, because firefighters have to attend to daily jobs in-between deployments.

Curacaví’s communications official, Margarita Avila, explained that firefighters may get a day or two off from work, but it’s impossible employers grant leave for much longer. That would rapidly diminish productivity and profits, and therefore competitiveness, curtailing community and state income. Thus, firefighters go to work in the morning and right after knock-off combat the blaze until night. If the fires aren’t too vicious, they can get some sleep then until the alarm rings to call them to work in the morning. Often, however, they don’t get much sleep. On the weekends, these people are basically on duty around the clock. To ease the burden at least somewhat, the Curacaví has coordinated with local businesses so firefighters can take turns. This way, personnel is available for longer hours, but at the cost of strength.

After almost two weeks living that nightmare, psychological hardship is adding to material and physical strain. Ms Avila related that when fires broke out, the community quickly and enthusiastically set up an operation to fight the flames. Neighbours gathered to cook for the forces and firefighters, and hand out the water and snacks that arrived as donations. Yet, after 10 days nonstop hard and dangerous work, inhaling vicious smoke under a merciless sun, everyone feels exhausted. A sense of paralysis emerges as the flames seem invincible. Weather forecasts promise no relief; temperatures are to remain above 30ºC for weeks to come. Naïve idealists cause further problems. Ms Avila said that people from outside town arrive to help, but as they go into the danger zone without coordinating with the professionals they quickly find themselves in life threatening situations, and their rescue diverts precious resources.

So far, it appears the fires result from a mix of developments. Institutional inefficiency, climate change, and altered economic patterns, play certainly a role. Chilean summers are a lot hotter than they used to be. In fact, global warming seems to have arrived to Chile years ago. Curacaví has suffered a decade of drought, turning the vegetation into highly incendiary material. This summer, the heat is especially intense, following the global trend of record temperatures. Add to that changing economic patterns. As Chileans grow increasingly wealthy, and abroad the country cultivates an image as vacation and retirement haven, real estate prices skyrocket because individuals buy land to build cottages. In Curacaví, Ms Avila said, many locals abandoned agriculture after cashing in on selling their land. With agriculture, pasture and soil processing also disappeared leaving more and higher grass which now fuels the flames.

Still, these developments cannot account for the magnitude of devastation. Asked about the possibility of arson, Mr Barros Basso, the mayor, disclosed that the municipality initiated legal proceedings against individuals. Although he remained understandably opaque, Mr Barros Basso said that suspicious activity had been registered in the vicinity. Some individuals supposedly handled open flames, but whether they did so with the intention to spark a fire or out of stupidity remains to be determined by the proper authorities. Indeed, the Chilean judiciary is processing 34 individuals accused of arson. The enormity of the catastrophe, as well as the unusually high numbers of fires rekindling that already had been extinguished, reinforces fears among the population about a concerted action.

These fears and anger are already exploited by darker forces. Several rumours, involving a sophisticatedly manipulated air surveillance video, are spreading via (anti)social networks and connect the indigenous population and immigrants to the catastrophe and fan the flames of racism and social division. Other rumours have that the fires are laid by big companies, often owned by Chile’s richest families, who also control most the country’s economy. They, the story goes, destroy their land to get the insurance payout and obtain government subsidies for reforestation. Whether these claims are debunked is irrelevant; they serve as valve to release widespread frustration. This has the sad effect that populist sentiment begins to target not only individual institutions, like the government, but the country’s democratic system as a whole. Politicians are depicted as talking the day away in Congress, while living off the population’s goodwill and taxes, without doing any actual work.

That democratic action can make the country’s response more efficient, because it can politicians hold accountable to failure, and that politics is still needed to set the frame for emergency responses, is of no interest to an emotionally charged and indignant population. Thus, compounding the tragedy of burned lives, property, flora and fauna, the blaze also consumes peoples’ openness, democracy’s legitimacy, and liberty — just about everything that makes Chile.

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