The wildfires in Chile were a terrifying sight, with thick black smoke, fireballs raining down, and flames shooting out. The scene was one of chaos and panic.
On the afternoon of Friday, February 2nd, Danitza Hurtado was relaxing at her house after finishing work. She was not worried about the summer wildfires that had begun at a farm close to a natural reserve nearby. However, by 6pm, she and her family were in a state of panic as fireballs fell from the sky and a thick wall of smoke moved towards their home in the Achupallas neighborhood on the outskirts of Viña del Mar, a coastal city with a population of approximately 300,000 people.
The 22-year-old recalls, “We were being battered by the wind and trees were collapsing onto the house. It was a terrifying experience. We had less than 10 minutes to gather our belongings and evacuate.”
They ran away, going up the hill as the fire moved forward quickly and fiercely, setting everything ablaze. Once they reached the top of the hill, they huddled with their neighbors in the one area that the flames couldn’t reach. The blazing inferno enclosed them, covering them in ashes.
Every year, Chile experiences seasonal wildfires, but the speed and severity of the latest one were unprecedented. According to official reports, over 130 individuals have lost their lives and approximately 370 are currently unaccounted for in Viña del Mar. To identify human remains, the country’s forensic medical service is utilizing DNA testing.
President of Chile, Gabriel Boric, has referred to the destructive fire as the most severe in an urban setting within the past three decades. He has labeled it as the greatest human disaster since the 8.8-magnitude earthquake in 2010, which claimed the lives of over 500 individuals.
On Wednesday, the Hurtados’ house is reduced to a mound of debris and tangled metal. The entire area, which was constructed on a steep hill, resembles a location that has been heavily bombarded.
Juan, the 75-year-old father of Danitza, states that it is feasible to reconstruct with the presence of a sewerage system, electricity, and water. However, the process will require starting from scratch.
Their nextdoor neighbour, Andrea Jaramillo, 48, is sleeping in a donated tent where her home once stood.
“It was a living nightmare, but I am grateful to God for being alive,” she says with tears. “I am not concerned about the loss of material possessions, but I still mourn for those who lost their lives.”
Unfortunately, the individuals living nearby were unable to escape the fire and tragically passed away. According to the survivors, a few of them had gone back to save their pets. Meanwhile, law enforcement is collecting details from locals in order to locate the deceased individuals.
“I have resided in this location for over two decades, and it breaks my heart because we never foresaw this situation,” expresses Jaramillo. He acknowledges the generosity of others for providing food and water, but what is truly necessary are supplies for rebuilding.
“The entire city is in a state of shock. This is unprecedented,” shares Nancy Díaz, a representative for Viña del Mar, during her visit to the fire victims in the heavily damaged El Olivar district. “Numerous individuals were trapped in the flames and unable to flee, which is heartbreaking for us,” she further explains.
Jorge Ojeda, 74, describes the situation as “complete chaos” while assisting his neighbors in removing debris. He recalls the sky being engulfed in black smoke and fireballs falling from above. He also witnessed tongues of flames moving back and forth across the sky.
However, while the reconstruction process is underway, experts studying climate cannot dismiss the possibility of similar wildfires occurring in the future due to the ongoing trend of increasing temperatures.
During an unusual period of high temperatures, fires started in the popular beach destinations of Viña del Mar and Valparaíso, attracting many tourists. These coastal towns, located approximately 75 miles (120km) northwest of the capital city Santiago, are usually cooled by a sea breeze. However, they were already experiencing smoke from fires in the nearby hills.
The combination of high temperatures, dry conditions from a 15-year drought, and strong winds created a dangerous environment that sparked and fueled the fires, resulting in entire neighborhoods being destroyed.
“Last weekend, these circumstances were exceptionally severe. This is the reason why the firefighters were unable to control the fire’s expansion,” stated Raúl Cordero, a climate expert from the University of Santiago and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.
The combination of factors that contribute to the rapid spread of these fires is commonly referred to as “30-30-30”, where the temperature exceeds 30 degrees Celsius, humidity drops below 30%, and wind speeds reach over 30 knots (equivalent to 34.5 miles per hour).
According to Cordero, the most lethal and largest fires occur in areas with the most severe heatwaves. He clarifies that extreme temperatures lead to extremely intense fires, and although low levels of rainfall were anticipated for this season, the exceptionally high temperatures were not.
According to him, a temperature of 36C in central Chile is abnormal.
However, there are widespread reports of intentional fires, and authorities have proposed that certain fires may have been deliberately started, citing evidence of flammable substances being utilized.
Boric stated that individuals responsible for starting a fire would be subject to the consequences of the law and would also face rejection from the entire community.
According to Cordero, the primary reason for the devastating wildfires is the extreme weather conditions. As the climate crisis continues to escalate, Chile must be ready for similar occurrences in the future. Cordero emphasizes that not only are the fires becoming larger, but they are also claiming more lives.