Why Chile’s deadly wildfires didn’t hit the Botania neighborhood

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QUILPUÉ, Chile – Going up the mountain, on the way to the community, everything looked black.

On one side of the road, there are the remains of houses and skeletons of trees. Beyond that, the smoker in the national botanical garden of Chile. The air still carried the strong smell of the historic wildfires that left at least 131 people dead, destroyed thousands of homes in the coastal Valparaiso region and scorched the Andes. country to mourn.

But at the top of the hill, there was a magnificent view. In this desert of ash and soot, an oasis.

The Botania neighborhood shone on the hilltop, its fine lines of bright painting undamaged houses. Cars would idle on the roads without ash.

That this community of 80 or so houses somehow emerged unscathed from what have been called the deadliest fires in Chilean history viral social media posts and headlines of disbelief and surprise last week.

“Unbelievable!” says El Reporte Diario.

“What’s the reason?” asked CHV Noticias.

The story of how Botania was saved when so many others were instantly lost reveals possible solutions and preventative measures in a country and world dealing with raging wildfires increasingly devastating, and at the same time showing the social inequality that often makes disasters worse.

Large wildfires are a new threat to Chile. This is why they are so deadly.

Botania is the result of implementing a fire prevention plan designed by Chilean forestry officials and a local non-governmental organization, supported by the US government. For months, with more than $20,000 in funding from the US Agency for International Development, community leaders had been buying supplies and preparing for the next big fire.

“With tools and with training, good things can happen,” said Tim Callaghan, USAID’s chief executive officer. “And this is clearly a success.”

But as the fires spread this month, eventually consuming up to 6,000 homes and leaving thousands homeless, the plan and training that would have been so successful in Botania was not available in many of the communities that needed it most.

Burnt areas in black or gray

No burning

vegetation in red

Source: Maxar Technologies

Burnt areas in black or gray

No burning

vegetation in red

Source: Maxar Technologies

Burnt areas in black or gray

No burning

vegetation in red

Source: Maxar Technologies

Burnt areas in black or gray

No burning

vegetation in red

Source: Maxar Technologies

Where the fires were the most destructive

Officials estimate that 70 percent of the destroyed homes in the area were located in illegal settlements known as “tomas ilegales.” The conditions in many of the towns were so flammable – inadequate forest management, streets littered with rubbish, houses built with cheap, flammable materials – that whole communities would burn in minutes.

It was a sad reminder of Chile’s failure to solve its ongoing housing crisis. In recent years, rising rents, coupled with stagnant incomes and the long shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, have put standard housing out of reach for tens of thousands of people. Many have ended up in the tomas ilegales.

The multiplication of the settlements have coincided with a significant increase in forest fires. Authorities believe this month’s fires were started on purpose, and have arrested at least 10 people so far. But scientists say a volatile combination of drought, climate change and El Niño fueled the spread of the fires. Three times more land burned in Chile in the past ten years than before, noted a study in the journal Scientific Reports.

The fires in recent years have been particularly intense in central Chile, where the Valparaiso region, popular with tourists, recreated by the irregular enclaves. About a fourth of the country’s tomas ilegales are found on its slopes and hills, which house more than 30,000 people, according to a national survey.

Some of the villages are more established, with running water and electricity. Others are little more than a collection of wooden shacks. The unpaved roads are littered with debris. Flammable brush is everywhere. Most of them are beyond the reach of state services.

Sebastián Todd Navarro has lived all his 25 years within one such community, Villa Independencia, located above a busy commercial center. he is he rarely felt the support of the state. Cut off from city lines, his family had for years to get water and electricity informally.

He again noticed the neglect of the situation on the evening of February 2. 2. There is a fire in the town alarm system. However Navarro said the first sign of danger was not his phone, but the fire spreading below.

“A sight I will never forget,” he said.

He went up the hill, taking advantage of the brush and trash that was left throughout the community. The wooden shacks burst into flames.

Navarro said he drove downhill to safety. By the time he did, his community had almost disappeared. It had taken less than 10 minutes, according to news reports.

When Navarro returned, he found bodies everywhere. For days, he said, the bodies remained. People covered them in metal cans to keep the dogs from feeding them, while they waited for state workers to come to remove them.

‘We could no longer be spectators’

The story of Botania, which began the path to salvation at the end of 2022, with another fire, was not forgotten. That fire burned through the nearby botanical garden, which contained some of the rarest tree species in the world, consuming nearly 10 acres.

So close to Botania, a middle-class neighborhood built atop a remote hill and surrounded by burning brush, residents are terrified.

“We could no longer be spectators,” said resident Cecilia Cisternas.

Just then, Quilpué city officials asked if the community wanted to be part of a new pilot project. The city had identified Botania as one of the most vulnerable communities, and this project was a way to start preparing for the next fire. The inhabitants of Botania quickly agreed.

The campaign was led by a local NGO, Caritas Chile, which partnered with Chilean forest officials and received a grant from USAID in 2022 to train communities on fire prevention strategies. The new program was launched in 14 neighborhoods, involving more than 12,000 people. The irregular settlements were left on purpose.

“Unfortunately, the reality of the settlements is complex,” said the Mayor of Quilpué Valeria Melipillán. “They are almost all in areas of danger, prone to fires, floods and mass removal – places where there would not be regulated construction is possible, making it very difficult to establish adequate prevention plans there.”

A USAID spokesperson said the agency wants to expand the program to include more vulnerable communities. “Although the informal settlements were not included in the first phase of this programme,” said the spokesperson, “discussions are ongoing on how to accommodate additional communities at risk of to be introduced in future phases.”

For Botany, Chilean forestry officials issued a risk report to determine the greatest fire risks and coaching residents on how to deal with them.

“The plan was simple,” said Simón Berti, president of Chile’s forestry engineer association. “Eliminate all vegetation near the houses. Cut down trees, clear all dry pastures.”

The residents of Botania entered the forest fire prevention zone.

“I don’t work in forestry,” said Rodrigo Vargas, president of the community group for fire prevention. “I’m just another resident. We had to learn everything from scratch to grasp the concepts.”

They split a wide path around the community, removing all debris to create a fire break. They held weekly planning sessions and installed a command center with an electric generator and walkie-talkies. They regularly cleared the surrounding area of ​​potentially flammable materials, cut back trees and reclaimed rubbish. They learned to use water sprays to soak the ground to slow the progress of the flames.

Then run time to prepare. The fire had come.

Deadly wildfires in Chile have killed at least 112 people and destroyed communities. The Botania of the region remained untouched. (Video: Sebastián Helena)

Relief, happiness – then sadness

As people began to evacuate, Vargas made sure that they had all the preparations for anything. This inferno was unlike any he had ever seen.

“Fire force,” he said. “His violence.”

He came to safety below, where he was waiting for any information about what happened in Botania. Finally, a message from a neighbor: Botania stood still. He was not fired.

Vargas didn’t believe him. The neighbor had to be wrong. Vargas waited until the flames died down. Then he climbed the hill on foot until he reached its height.

“It was one of the most beautiful things,” he said. “It was still there.”

None of the houses were damaged.

But the relief and joy he felt, however, led to sadness. He took a moment to absorb the perspective from the community. It was just a black sea of ​​ash.

All that survived was Botania.

McCoy reported from Rio de Janeiro. Marina Dias in Brasilia contributed to this report.

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