At least 26 people have died as a result of the raging fires in the south of the country. Approximately 270,000 acres of land have been consumed by the flames. Authorities have arrested two people on suspicion of arson.
On Feb. 2, the Chilean government declared a state of emergency as to the wildfires burning in the regions of Ñuble and Biobío. La Auricanía was added to this list over the weekend of Feb. 4. Fires have spread to the Maule region as well. The emergency declaration allows authorities to employ all necessary resources to control the fires and to aid those affected.
Over 280 individual wildfires have consumed approximately 270,000 hectares. At least 24 lives have been claimed. An estimated 1,000 people have been injured, and over 1,800 have been forced to flee their homes, seeking refuge in shelters. Minister of Public Works Juan Carlos García said the current situation is “one of the largest catastrophes we have had.”
“Protecting families is our priority. We are working in coordination with local and national authorities to combat forest fires affecting the regions of Maule, Ñuble, Biobío and La Araucanía,” President Gabriel Boric tweeted.
So says the Undersecretary of the Interior, Manuel Monsalve. “The law is particularly harsh …. The penalties range from 5 to 20 years,” he added. So far, ten people have been arrested on suspicion of intentionally starting fires. #IncendiosForestales pic.twitter.com/8a3F2FX8av
— Chile Today News (@ChileTodayNews) February 6, 2023
The Chilean Interior Minister Carolina Tohá spoke about four of the victims in Santa Juana. The official explained that two died after being overcome by flames when they were traveling along a road, while the other two died in a traffic accident “probably trying to escape the fire.”
The fires later claimed another victim in Santa Juana. She was a volunteer for the local fire department. Later in the afternoon, two more people died when the helicopter they were using to fight the fires crashed. By the end of the weekend, Feb. 5, the death toll had risen to 24.
Mexico and Spain have sent 150 and 50 firefighters respectively, in response to President Boric’s request for international assistance. The U.S. has dispatched a “Ten Tanker” aircraft, a firefighter plane capable of holding 36,000 liters of water. The plane is expected to arrive in Concepcíon on Feb. 6. Other countries, including Brazil, Colombia, and Portugal, are expected to send support later in the week.
The fires, unleashed during an extreme heat wave and severe drought, are caused mainly by human activity, mostly unintentional, but in some instances intentional. As to the latter, Manuel Monsalve, Undersecretary of the Interior, said that prosecutors “will act with the greatest severity allowed by the law.” In fact, Chile’s Office of the Prosecutor is already investigating potential cases of arson. On Feb. 5, the government announced that 10 people had been arrested on suspicion of arson. The penalties range from 5 to 20 years in prison, Monsalve told the press.
Matthijs Douwe contributed to this report.
Carmen Critelli is an intern at Chile Today. She has recently completed her bachelor’s degree in European Studies from Maastricht University in the Netherlands. During her studies and journalistic experience, she specialised in migration/immigration issues, poverty and sustainability.