Chile: Chronology of a week in flames

Suspicions of arson were raised from the outset. Minister of the Interior Carolina Tohá indicated last Sunday that the government had information from ‘reliable people’ that supported that thesis

A man escapes on horseback from a fire in Viña del Mar while emergency services arrive at the scene, on February 3, 2024.Esteban Felix (AP)
Antonieta de la Fuente

The first flames ignited at 12:05 p.m. on Friday, February 2, in the Las Tablas area of the Lago Peñuelas nature reserve. The records of the National Forestry Corporation, the entity in charge of forest fire control in Chile, identified four simultaneous outbreaks in that sector that quickly spread through the dry grasslands and forests.

The heat, with a maximum forecast of 27ºC (84ºF) for the Valparaíso region, and the strong wind blowing from south to north that day, allowed the fires to spread in record time. By 1:30 p.m. they were already threatening Route 68, the main access road to the Greater Valparaíso area, where traffic was suspended. However, firefighters were unable to contain the blaze. The flames continued to advance towards the north, following the course of the ravines that separate the villas constructed in the upper sectors of Viña del Mar and part of Quilpué. The garbage accumulated in the ravines became fuel for the fires. At 6 p.m. on Friday, the flames were already inside the city of Viña del Mar, in parts of the commune of Quilpué, and in Limache.

The Emergency Alert System (SAE), administered by the National Service for Disaster Prevention and Response (Senapred), a government agency, was activated on the cell phones of inhabitants in the affected areas. But many say they either did not receive the alert, or it came too late. Dozens of cars in which families were trying to escape were overrun by the fires. Many opted to abandon their vehicles and run for their lives. But the fires were advancing at a speed of between four and 10 kilometers per hour (2.5 mph-6.2 mph), much faster than people were able to move through the narrow streets between hills.

The botanical garden of Viña del Mar, a green lung with centennial species, was almost completely reduced to ashes. Of its 400 hectares, only two were left standing. Patricia Araya, an employee who lived in the park, died along with her two grandchildren and her 92-year-old mother.

When night fell, the smoke made it impossible to determine where the fire was coming from and where it was advancing to. In the early hours of the morning, President Gabriel Boric’s government decree a state of emergency, but only at dawn on Saturday did the magnitude of the tragedy become apparent. The initial death toll was put at 19, but the government warned that the number would increase.

On Saturday afternoon, the fires were still raging and as of 2 p.m. there was a resurgence due to strong winds. While Senapred was warning of new areas to be evacuated, the industrial zone of El Salto, in the southern sector of the commune of Viña del Mar, where several factories are located, began to burn.

The fire gradually subsided, aided by the coastal trough and the low temperatures on Sunday, February 4, but the Fire Brigade did not consider the emergency over until shortly before midnight on Tuesday.

Government has “reliable” information pointing to arson

During the initial days of the catastrophe, it was not easy to obtain official figures for missing persons as the death toll rose. At first the mayor of Viña del Mar, Macarena Ripamonti, spoke of more than 300 missing. By January 8, however, Undersecretary of Justice Jaime Gajardo indicated “a total of 66 reports” for people who had not been found, of which 14 still remain unaccounted for.

The number of people killed, most of them collected by Carabineros and Investigative Police personnel on the streets and in the burned villages, totaled 131 people as of Thursday. Of these, the Forensic Medical Service (SML) has identified 50. The state of the bodies has made this task difficult, leading the SML to resort to DNA tests of relatives. At press time, 125 autopsies had been performed and 27 bodies had already been handed over to their families.

Suspicions of arson were raised from the outset. Minister of the Interior Carolina Tohá indicated last Sunday that the government had information from “reliable people” that supported that thesis.

However, despite the efforts of the police, no one has yet been arrested in connection with starting the fires, as confirmed Thursday by prosecutor Osvaldo Ossandón. “To date there have been no arrests for fires; there have been many identity checks that can be confused with people who have reported seeing people trying to start fires. The police have been there, but there are no antecedents to determine that they were committing arson,” he said. The investigation is being kept confidential so as not to interfere with the inquiries.

In the meantime, the initial damage caused by the fire is estimated at 15,000 homes between Viña del Mar and Quilpué. Boric announced Friday that the government will initiate payments from a state fund to the affected families and activated the National Reconstruction Fund, a tool created after the 2010 earthquake. “It has been an important mechanism to be able to channel and encourage aid and support from the private sector when emergencies of this kind shake our country,” he said.

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