NATIONAL Wildfires in Chile

Chile volunteer firefighting system reaches breaking point

Employers are increasingly edgy about workers who volunteer as firefighters. Chile is facing a record number of wildfires, which are confronted by an all-volunteer force. Attempts at professionalization have repeatedly been rejected over the years.

More than 5,600 firefighters have been fighting wildfires since last week; and authorities have expressed disappointment with employers whose employees volunteer with the country’s firefighting force, Bomberos de Chile

Agriculture Minister Esteban Valenzuela, who was recently appointed presidential liaison to the Ñuble Region to deal with the fires, lamented that most Chilean employers refused to give volunteers leave from work to fight the fires, forcing units to retreat from the regions of Ñuble, Biobío, and La Araucanía, where they have been operating. 

The Minister told Radio Cooperativa that fire units were being withdrawn from the three regions “[n]ot only because of … fatigue, but because many employers are not respecting, despite the enormous crisis and catastrophe that is being experienced here, this tradition of [granting leave to] firefighters, volunteers, who may be absent from work.”

El Periódico quoted Interior Minister Carolina Tohá in a similar vein: “volunteer [firefighters] are called back to work … they lost many fire brigade teams [because] they had to return to their jobs, as employers signaled to them the time of their volunteering was already too much.”

Valenzuela urged employers of firefighters to accommodate the services, adding that legislation exists that requires it.

Read more:

Chile’s Wildfires Turn Fatal: At Least 26 Dead

Death toll corrected

Chile’s firefighting force is 100 percent volunteer-based. Over the years, attempts to professionalize the force, including heavy public investment, have repeatedly been rejected by firefighters. More recently, Chile’s draft constitution, which included extensive provisions to build a professional firefighting force, was overwhelmingly rejected in a plebiscite last September.

“In the event of an emergency that lasts longer than expected, it is not that this willingness [to volunteer] has to be decreased, but that it has to be increased. When there are more days, more volunteers are needed, and the more tired they are, the more they need the support and willingness of their employers,” Tohá said.

Persistent hot and dry weather have exacerbated the deadliest blazes in the country’s recent history.

Over 300 fires have been registered so far, with some 170 still to be contained.

On Feb. 7, the death toll was corrected from 26 to 24, still more than double of the deaths caused by the major wildfires in 2017. A state of catastrophe has been declared for the regions of Ñuble, Biobío, and La Araucanía.

The flames have consumed more than 290,000 hectares and 1,145 homes within roughly one week, according to Chile’s disaster prevention agency.

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