Chile fires: A very different Sunday in Valparaiso

Publié: 16 avril 2014 14:32 CET

By Gustavo Ramirez, regional representative in Chile for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

A wildfire broke out on Saturday, 12 April 2014, in Camino La Polvora, in the port city of Valparaiso. Reports from national authorities state that over 800 homes have been destroyed by the fire and more than 12,000 people forced to evacuate their homes. 12 people have died and many more are injured. Concerns are growing as the fire continues on a destructive path across the commune and strong winds are spurring new fires, damaging more homes and prompting further evacuations.

Sundays are often calm in cities; absent of the noise and motion of a normal work day. Inhabitants usually rest in the tranquillity of their homes with their families or friends. However this last Sunday was not normal in Valparaiso. On the contrary, the city was transformed into a chaotic state – there was desperation, anguish, people running with masks on their faces to protect themselves from smoke and ash.

Although traffic lights were functioning, cars were being re-directed by the police, the Chilean Marines and members of the civil defence, who were all trying to clear the roads to make way for fire trucks, ambulances, police cars, and Red Cross vehicles.

A dense cloud of grey smoke darkened the sky above the city as a delicate rain of ash fell slowly fell upon us. Siren sounds of ambulances, fire trucks and police cars amplified concern and uncertainty. Everyone was looking to the hills. To the fire.

The day before, the fire, which had left thousands of people in utter helplessness and hopelessness, still burned as flames spread across the hills, which had been the proud home of so many for so many years, and which also contributed to the unique landscape of this port city, a UNESCO world heritage site.

A determination to rebuild

Valparaiso burned, truly reminiscent of a hellscape. With extreme care and caution, we climbed one of the hills where the fire had not yet arrived. Jostling among distressed drivers going up and down the hills, we arrived at a look out which offered a panoramic view. Vivian Guajardo, a Chilean Red Cross volunteer whose expertise is safe access, was our guide, and indicated that this was the best place to truly see the scale of this tragedy. It was a gruesome scene. Hundreds of homes had been destroyed by the flames. Charred skeleton remains of these homes were hanging from the sides of sloping hills. Unexplained miracles of unplanned architecture.

We were facing what once were, without being formally recognized, the favelas of Valparaiso. Until this moment I had always thought that these informal settlements are unique to Rio de Janeiro, but this tragedy, like many others, shows us what we don’t want to see or what we wish to hide.

With tears in her eyes, Maria – a local resident who had lost everything – felt as though she was living through a nightmare. “I did not want to believe that this was true.”

It was indeed a sight that is hard to take in, as it looked like an atomic bomb had exploded in this part of the city, burning everything in seconds. The only thing left were foundations of buildings, concrete pillars, precarious concrete blocks that in dramatic silence, served as testimony to what had occurred some hours ago.

A gruesome scene that reminded me of images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as Banda Aceh in Indonesia after the tsunami had struck a little over a decade ago.

Valparaiso is hurting, wounded, but not dead. The spirit of revival lives in the city’s inhabitants. Despite the pain of this tragedy, they have the determination and desire to rebuild this postcard city of the Central Pacific in Chile.

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