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May 29, 2024

Chile Declares State of Catastrophe As Worst Wildfires In History Ravage Central Regions

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Feb 4, 2024

Chile has declared a state of catastrophe in central regions as massive wildfires continue to spread after nearly two weeks, killing at least 46 people so far. Over 9,500 people have been evacuated from their homes as the fires engulf entire neighborhoods and rural communities.

The Blazes

The wildfires began on January 18th in hills near Valparaiso on the Pacific coast. Fueled by strong winds, high temperatures and drought conditions, the fires quickly grew out of control.

By February 3rd, over 300 separate wildfires were burning across central Chile. According to Chile’s National Forestry Corporation (CONAF), over 140,000 hectares have been scorched – an area larger than Los Angeles. The regions of Ñuble and Biobío have been the hardest hit.

Region Hectares Burned
Ñuble 88,501
Biobío 46,069
Maule 5,150
La Araucanía 296
Total 140,016

Entire neighborhoods and small towns have been reduced to ashes. The areas around Santa Juana and San Vicente de Tagua Tagua were particularly devastated as the fast-moving flames overtook residents before they could react.

“It was hell…we had to run with nothing but the clothes on our backs,” recounted survivor María Sepúlveda from Santa Juana, who barely escaped the inferno. Over 230 houses were razed in her town alone.

Death Toll Mounting

At least 46 deaths have been confirmed so far, but the number is expected to rise significantly as rescue crews comb through the wreckage. Many small rural communities remain cut off.

Most victims were unable to outrun or drive away from the fires fast enough. More bodies are being discovered in burned out homes and vehicles.

Chile’s Health Minister, Ximena Aguilera, has reported over 1,000 burn victims have flooded regional hospitals, which are struggling to cope with the surge.

State of Emergency

On February 3rd, Chilean President Gabriel Boric declared a State of Catastrophe in the central regions for an initial period of two weeks. This grants extraordinary powers to the armed forces and disaster relief agencies. The president pledged “all our support to the people affected.”

Emergency Measures Enacted
– Curfews
– Evacuations
– Road closures
– Suspension of basic services like power and water
– Deployment of armed forces & law enforcement
– Relief aid distribution

All non-emergency personnel have been ordered to evacuate at-risk zones. Mass evacuations of tens of thousands of people are underway, made extremely complex due to limited escape routes. Food, water, blankets and medical aid are being dispersed to victims in shelters.

Causes Of The Wildfires

Chile is no stranger to annual wildfire seasons, but experts agree the current mega-blazes are unprecedented. NASA satellite images vividly showcase South America engulfed by giant plumes of smoke visible from space.

A “perfect storm” of contributing factors have spawned this year’s runaway wildfires:

Over 13-Year Megadrought – Central Chile has been mired in a record breaking megadrought since 2010, devastating agriculture and drying out the land. 2022 was Chile’s driest year in history. Vegetation has become tinder dry.

Deforestation – Chile’s forestry industry has replaced native forests with fast-growing eucalyptus and pine plantations vulnerable to fires. This monoculture landscape burns faster. Illegal clearing of land through arson has also increased to make way for more plantations.

Climate Change – Rising global temperatures have compounded drought conditions and propensity for heatwaves across Chile. 2022 was also Chile’s hottest year ever registered. Earlier snowmelts are reducing river flows and irrigation.

** delayed government response** – Warnings signs were evident long before the mega-blazes erupted, but the new Chilean administration underestimated the danger. Their reactions to the unfolding disaster have been criticized as slow and inadequate by opposition leaders. Insufficient aircraft and resources have hampered firefighting efforts.

What Next?

With no sign of the fires abating anytime soon, Chile potentially faces a unprecedented catastrophe over the coming weeks :

Death Toll Increase – The final death count is expected to be dramatically higher once isolated communities can be properly searched. At least several hundred further fatalities are predicted by emergency personnel if current conditions prevail.

Infrastructure and Agricultural Collapse – Vital infrastructure like highways, buildings, power lines and drinking water systems have been severely affected across a massive region in central Chile. Key industries face paralysis. At least 10% of Chile’s total land used for agriculture and livestock has already been torched. The economy faces major supply chain disruptions.

Toxic Air Pollution – Noxious smoke pollution is spreading as far as Buenos Aires and São Paulo as over 100 separate wildfires continue to burn out of control. Air quality has declined to hazardous levels in major cities, posing a severe health risk to millions of people.

Worsening Drought – Rainfall is unlikely until at least mid-Autumn. With vegetation wiped out across such an extensive area, erosion and desertification will increase. More water rationing is probable. The ongoing megadrought shows no signs of relenting.

Chile likely faces a unprecedented national crisis. The government is under severe criticism for failing to prepare adequately despite clear warning signs of the impending disaster. Rival politicians are calling for a parliamentary commission into the failed response once the immediate emergency has passed. President Boric has an enormous challenge to coordinate relief and rebuilding efforts which could drag on for years.

For the people of central Chile who have lost everything, the catastrophe is just beginning.

AiBot

AiBot

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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