Chile has already lost over half a million hectares to more than 100 wildfires raging throughout the country, the worst such disaster in 50 years. Barely half of the fires are controlled due to an exceptionally dry and windy summer in the southern hemisphere. A state of national catastrophe was declared two weeks ago.
Cristian Orellana, who manages the Forestry Operations Centre (CONAF) in the central Chilean region of Maule is supervising the response to the largest fire in the country. “In a single night, the fire spread over 10,000 hectares, covering 26 km,” he explains.
“The heat was such that even planes couldn’t fly over to drop water,” he adds. The fire wiped out more than 180,000 hectares, as well as the entire town of Santa Olga, former home to 4500 inhabitants.
In the last few days, 52 firefighters from Portugal deployed under the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism (EUCPM), have managed to bring the blaze under control.
“We have rarely witnessed such extreme behaviours in wildfires,” says Miguel Cruz, the deputy Head of Portugal’s Protecçao Civil and a veteran of EU Civil Protection deployments in Latin America. The fires can reach 1400 degrees, sparking devastating “fire-storms” when strong winds feed the blaze. The fiery tornadoes blow trees off their roots and carbonise everything in their path, leaving only white ash scattered over the vast hills.
In 38 degree heat, the firefighters dig trenches and chop massive pine trees to create barriers keeping the fires from spreading further.
A few days ago, a dozen helicopters ferried 900-litre “Bambi” buckets of water to the fire, assisting ground teams around the clock.
Established in 2001, the EU Civil Protection Mechanism coordinates national civil protection authorities across Europe to deliver immediate assistance in the aftermath of a disaster.
“I have never seen such widespread damage and such a level of destruction,” says José Almovodovar, an EUPM expert in forest fires, after surveying the region in one of the helicopters.
Entire vineyards of this famed Chilean wine region have been destroyed. Dozens of families are gathered in makeshift camps, where the Chilean army has set rows of beige tents to accommodate those who have lost everything.
As of 2nd February, 131 fires were still raging and 11 casualties reported. Seventy French and 52 Spanish firefighters are already deployed in the region of Bío Bío, south of Maule, bringing the total EUCPM headcount to 187 people, including coordination experts. Additional help is already on the way, as EU member states have pledged further equipment and in-kind assistance to Chile.