Fires in Chile: Arson? Accident?

Fires in Chile: Arson? Accident?
Fires in Chile: Arson? Accident?
  • It is unclear why fires flamed up in the Chilean city of Valparaiso.
  • Some attribute it to protests and human causes but shoddy construction and poor regulations could also be to blame.
  • Prevention is better than cure and there are many such cases around the world.

Hundreds of homes were destroyed (almost 250) and thousands of people are now living in temporary accommodation after hundreds of fires flamed up in the Chilean city of Valparaiso on Christmas Eve.

For now, authorities seem convinced that the fires are no accident. Analysts, most with few actual facts at hand or any on-site investigation, say setting fires may be a new approach for protesters after two months of social unrest.

“Fires continue. Today we had a fire with red alert in Via del Mar, also a small fire in Valparaa­so. High temperatures are expected tomorrow, which means that more forest fires could be ignited,” Gonzalo Pinto, a major at the Valparaiso headquarters of Chile’s Civil Defense said on Dec. 27. The Civil Defense is working to support the victims of the fires and maintain order in emergency shelters.

“There is a 1 percent chance of spontaneous fires,” said Pinto. “All are provoked. They are either provoked by human mistakes or with the intention of creating fires.”

In a statement on Christmas Day, Interior Minister Gonzalo Blumel said evidence suggested arson was the cause of the fires.

Are there other human causes?

Authorities have been worried for years about the possibility of a killer fire.

“There were several campaigns by central, regional and local governments to encourage people to clean their land, but people continue to dump trash in the ravines and the resources are not enough to clean all the ravines,” Pinto said.

The sheer number of irregular structures may have contributed to the Christmas blaze. Authorities cut power to about 90,000 people in the area and two schools were used as shelters. The city of Valparaiso, about 100 kilometers from the capital, declared a state of emergency.

Conditions on the ground made the impact of the fires worse.

One issue is that a lot of the poorest houses are exposed to the risk of fire but housing and zoning regulations, even when they exist, are not enforced. The result is poorly-built homes in narrow streets without any options to deal with fires that may light up. Not even fire trucks can enter.

A second issue is related to the first. Construction in Valparaiso does not take into account the risk of fire as much as it does the risks of floods or earthquakes. Construction materials are not fire-resistant. There are no firewalls or any efforts made to protect against fires. Firewalls could help.

The upshot is that prevention, in Chile and everywhere around the world, could go a long way towards cutting down on the worst impacts of fires and other disasters.