The Cable

Chile Is Battling the Worst Wildfire in Its History

And the worst may be yet to come.


Chile is battling the worst wildfire in its history, and is now pleading for international assistance after months of trying to bring deadly fires under control.

Drought, strong winds, and high temperatures have stoked a series of fires in Central Chile since November (environmentalists blame Chile’s unusually dry weather on climate change). But things went from bad to worse when smaller brush fires converged into a massive wildfire that destroyed the town of Santa Olga Thursday evening, killing 10 people and reducing over 1,000 buildings to smoldering rubble.

Central Chile is no stranger to natural disasters; it regularly endures floods and earthquakes. But this this different. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet called the fires “the greatest forest disaster” in the country’s history. In the past week, officials estimate the fire engulfed 680,000 acres of land — almost the size of Yosemite National Park in the United States — and it shows no signs of stopping.

“What we have experienced here is literally like Dante’s Inferno,” Carlos Valenzuela, mayor of Constitución, a town near Santa Olga, told the Guardian. “I believe that this surpasses any tragedy that we have had before,” he added.

The government deployed some 5,000 firefighters to battle the flames, who were aided by countless locals desperate to save their homes and livestock. But even all that wasn’t enough to save Santa Olga. And as the fire spreads, it’s stretched the country’s limited resources dangerously thin. So Chile called for backup from the rest of the world.

Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Munoz said Canada and the United States offered to help, as did Russia. Russia already sent a super-tanker aircraft capable of dumping tons of water on fire to Chile to combat the flames. And on Thursday, Bachelet announced her country was accepting more Russian tanker planes and helicopters.

If that’s not enough, the family behind Wal-Mart is now chipping in. The Chilean wife of a Walton heir hired a massive Boeing super tanker to help douse the fires. It’s already been deployed to the El Maule region of Chile.

Still, government officials warn the worst may still be to come. Chile’s interior ministry said the country could expect hotter temperatures and stronger winds in the coming days, which would fan the flames even further.

Photo credit: MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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