Chilean authorities are investigating whether fires that destroyed almost 250 homes in the port city of Valparaiso on Christmas Eve were intentionally set, which may have been an attempt to keep the momentum of a two-month-old protest movement in the country.
Authorities are convinced the fires that stranded thousands of people did not start spontaneously. Some analysts believe the intensity and timing of the blazes mark them as a new form of social protest and a continuation of unrest that has gripped the Latin American country.
Some 500 fires spread through the hills of Valparaiso, destroying about 245 homes in the residential areas of Las Torres, San Roque and Cuesta Colorada. Authorities responded by sending in firefighters, brigades from the National Forestry Corporation, police and both army and navy personnel. The fires were both unusual in the region and unparalleled in their scope for the spring months of October, November and December.
Valparaiso, a UNESCO-designated city about 100 kilometers from Chile’s capital, Santiago, has declared a state of emergency.
In a statement on Christmas Day, Interior Minister Gonzalo Blumel said evidence suggested arson was behind the fires. These were not the first fires in the region showing signs of being intentionally set, he said, adding that police and prosecutors were working together to investigate. Arson, said Blumel in Spanish, carries severe penalties.
His comments were based on a video that was allegedly filmed by a resident of one of the affected areas. The footage appeared to show a pickup truck leaving at high speed from a spot where a fire began and a small fuel container was found.
“The big question is whether they (the fires) were provoked－which is very likely－or not. Depending on the answer, the analysis varies,” said Axel Buchheister, a lawyer and political analyst in Santiago.
“If the fires were provoked, they clearly seek to intensify and maintain social chaos and tension to cause the fall of government and democracy,” he said.
Protesters have been out en masse in Chile since mid-October to voice their displeasure with the country’s economic and political model. Protesters calling for political reform led to Chile’s biggest economic drop in a decade, with the GDP in October contracting 3.4 percent.
Gonzalo Pinto, an instructor at the Valparaiso headquarters of Chile’s Civil Defense, said on Friday: “Fires continue. Today we had a fire with red alert in Vina del Mar, also a small fire in Valparaiso.
“There is a 1 percent chance of spontaneous fires. All are provoked. They are either provoked by human mistakes or with the intention of creating fires,” Pinto said.
The Civil Defense is working to support victims of the fires and to maintain order in emergency shelters at two schools.
The ultimate toll of the fires may not be known for some time.
Many of these constructions are irregular and are knowingly exposed to the risk of fire, said Buchheister, the lawyer.
“There is another concrete factor: urbanization does not meet the standards, and that translates into narrow streets or mere trails,” he added. “In previous fires it has happened that fire trucks simply cannot enter the area.”
Oneidys Adriana Rondon Marquez, a director at ArqOne, a firm specializing in wooden architecture, noted that risk planning in Valparaiso accounts for floods and earthquakes but not fires. About two-thirds of the city’s ad hoc houses fail to meet fire standards, she added.
“Materials aren’t resistant to any of these mishaps; there are no paints, insulation or other fire retardants. They are in very bad condition,” Marquez said. “The houses that burnt are located in a neighborhood high on a hill in Valparaiso, in Cerro Alegre.”
Constructing firewalls around homes in high forested areas and removing fire hazards like weeds from around houses may help fend off future fires, she added.
Political analyst Alexis Lopez also believes the fires were purposely set as part of ongoing social unrest. Chile’s protests were huge at first, with more than a million people taking to the streets in Santiago on Oct 25, but public support has dwindled visibly.
“The decline in public support for the protests has meant that coverage … has decreased and therefore, in the absence of such coverage, the violent actions of (some protesters) have also had to move and focus on other objectives,” he said.
“The number of fires makes it possible to argue that these are obviously intentional fires.”
The writer is a freelance journalist for China Daily.