Chile a country in flames
Chile a country in flames could be categorised a country with bad luck? Some Chileans would be inclined to believe that their country Chile falls into that unfortunate category. They had to endure one of the longest and bloodiest military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet, on the natural forces front they must face frequent earthquakes, and these days the Chilean territory is suffering a series of forest fires of unprecedented magnitude and violence – Chile a country in flames.
Chileans are so accustomed to seismic events that any such occurrence measuring under five on the Richter scale is seen as a routine phenomenon, not worthy of much attention. Indeed most of the population know how to react in such cases, and even when big earthquakes hit the country–the last one was on February 27, 2010–the number of casualties is relatively small, people are prepared.
Big fires such as those affecting the central-south regions of Chile right now are something different for which it ‘s hard to be well prepared. Over 136 thousand hectares have burned since the fires started in mid-January, more than three thousand people have been displaced from their homes, and 1,089 houses had been destroyed until the beginning of this week. At this time 32 of the fires remain active.
One of the most disturbing aspects of this catastrophe is the question about the causes of the fire. While natural causes–temperatures in the region have been over 34 degrees Celsius for most of the month, without the benefit of summer rains as is the case in Canada–are considered as the culprit, the police have arrested 34 people who have been charged with intentionally setting some of the fires. Who could seriously do something like that? The answer to that question instead has opened many complex and delicate issues. Are these the actions of just irrational or sick people? Is there a conspiracy going on during a year when presidential and parliamentary elections should take place? Are these actions then a part of a destabilizing plan? Right-wing sectors acting through the social networks have circulated the idea that Mapuche activists were behind the fires (the Mapuche are the largest aboriginal minority in Chile, involved in a fight over land rights in the region known as the Araucania) a rumour that was dismissed by President Michelle Bachelet. A variety of so-called anarchist groups has been involved in some actions (the most recent a letter bomb sent to the CEO of the state-owned copper corporation) which are themselves somehow of dubious origin. The truth is that at this time it is impossible to confirm or deny any of the theories on the causes of the fires. Probably in most cases, they had a natural cause, but given the existing evidence, human action–not only negligence but also intent–must also be regarded as a likely cause of some fires.
On the positive side, however, the Chileans have been grateful for the timely and efficient international assistance they have received to combat the fires. With a significant experience in battling forest fires, Canada was also asked to help. Fire brigades, helicopters, and planes from neighbouring countries were in Chile almost immediately, assistance from more distant countries has also arrived and has been quite effective in fighting the fires. Americans and Russians, in particular, became very useful, both contributing with powerful implements: a Boeing Supertanker rented by a Chilean woman married to the owner of Walmart, and an Ilyushin tanker and a large Antonov carrying state of the art helicopters facilitated by Russia were welcome in particular by the Chileans.
Lessons for Canada and any other country with a significant forestry industry? Besides the natural and human factors that may have contributed to the huge fires, the practices of the forestry companies–which are not different from country to country–are seen as a contributing factors to the devastation of the fires. In the Chilean case, the plantation of pines and eucalyptus, both highly combustible species, displacing native trees is certainly a factor to consider. These trees have in turn dried up water sources on the soil and eliminated other vegetation that could retain humidity on the ground. Perhaps amid the catastrophe affecting Chile’s forests, some voices should rise asking for a review of the practices incurred by big forestry corporations around the world, including what they are doing in Canada as well, home to one of the richest forestry reserves in the world. After all, it is important to remember that all that richness can go up in smoke in a few days.
By: Sergio Martinez – mtltimes.ca