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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Chile’s deadliest wildfire is said to have been made worse by a lack of water



Alejandro Peirano, the director of Chile’s National Botanical Garden, walks around the property in Vina del Mar, Chile, Monday, Feb. 5, 2024. The botanical garden, which was burned across 98 percent of its nearly 1,000-acre property, is one of the world’s largest. (Cristobal Olivares/The New York Times)

By Brent McDaniel, Miguel Soffia and John Bartlett


As a fast-moving wildfire swept through the cities of Viña del Mar and Quilpué on Chile’s Pacific coast last month, flames engulfed residents on the street, destroyed homes and overwhelmed the utility grid. Power shut off, communications went down and not enough water reached a critical line of defense: the fire hydrants.


Firefighters and residents in the two cities told New York Times reporters that the insufficient water had hampered efforts to save homes and stop the fire’s advance, eventually forcing them to abandon parts of the two cities.


The wildfire — the deadliest in Chile’s history, killing 134 people and destroying thousands of homes — blazed out of control almost from the start, fueled by extreme climate conditions, high winds and flammable trees.


A lack of water made matters worse, according to firefighters and residents.


Chile, which is in the midst of a prolonged drought, has faced ongoing problems with supplying adequate water to battle wildfires in urban areas.


In the Valparaiso region, which includes Viña del Mar and Quilpué, forest fire experts say unregulated development has made cities and towns particularly vulnerable to wildfires.


“It’s a supply and demand problem,” said Miguel Castillo, a professor at the University of Chile’s Forest Fires Engineering Laboratory who works with cities on wildfire prevention measures.


“Many times water isn’t available for firefighting,” he said, adding that the problem had persisted in the region for years. “And now, it’s gotten worse.”


Esval, the private company that provides water for the Valparaiso region, denied that there had been any problems with hydrants in the fire zone and said that the local water system had been at “full capacity.”


As the fire raged, Esval announced reductions to the water supply outside the fire zone to bolster pressure to the system.


Daniel Garín, a 13-year veteran with the Quilpué fire department, told the Times that water-pressure problems and out-of-service hydrants had existed before the February wildfire.


In early January, after a supermarket burned down in Viña del Mar, the city’s fire chief, Patricio Brito, told a local TV station that there had been no water in the hydrants, saying, “The reality is, the water in this sector is zero, zero.”


A local congressman, Andrés Celis Montt, said at the time that “serious problems” with the hydrants needed to be investigated and addressed before peak wildfire season, which in Chile typically lasts until April.


On Feb. 2, in Viña del Mar’s El Olivar neighborhood, Yanet Alarcón said she looked on helplessly as the wildfire neared and the water hose she was using to douse her two-story house ran dry. She was forced to flee, and her house was consumed by the fire.


“When I returned, there were flames here, flames there, fire still burning inside,” Alarcón said through her tears.


In Quilpué, Mauricio Miranda said firefighters had failed to find water in nearby hydrants and stood by waiting for fresh supplies to arrive as his house burned.


“My house was completely destroyed, and there was no water inside, which shows the firefighters didn’t hose it,” he said.


Miranda and about a dozen families in the Canal Chacao neighborhood said that they planned to meet with Esval to seek compensation, claiming that the company’s failure to provide enough water to hydrants led to the destruction of their homes.

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