The devastating scenes on television are heartrending. Forests aflame in vast regions of central and southern Chile. They resemble war scenes: people fleeing with the few possessions they can carry; a pickup truck loaded with a refrigerator; a mattress, a stove; tables, chairs, sofas clustered in the middle of the road. The pueblo of Santa Olga – homes, stores, schools, the firehouse – all reduced to ashes.
Firefighters with soot-covered faces struggle with heavy hoses. Neighbors and volunteers wield shovels and electric saws removing brush to create a firebreak. But the wind is wily, changing directions, trapping forestry workers and firemen. Ten deaths reported thus far.
Rumors abound regarding the causes. Several fires seem to be man-made. It is clear that the vast plantations of pine and eucalyptus trees are particularly flammable especially in drought years with continuous high temperatures. What I hear is that native vegetation is more resistant to fire but was clear-cut long ago, probably initially by the Spaniards, in order to plant wheat. But timber was esteemed more profitable, and now Chile has vast tracks of land planted with non-native species.
As with the tsunami, once again the country has been caught unprepared. Help has arrived from Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Russia. A Chilean woman in the States rented and sent a Global Supertanker to douse water over broad areas. Television shows images of firemen connecting hoses and tanks to supply the plane with water. Residents cheer and laugh when the supertanker flies over their land releasing showers of water.
This disaster is bringing people together: firemen (who are all volunteers in Chile), soldiers, carabineros, civilians work side by side. The examples of solidarity are heartening: a fireman feeding water to a dog from his water bottle, another cradling a fox pup with burnt paw pads, a newsman comforting a woman who lost everything, neighbors helping neighbors.
I pray that lessons will be learned from this: the need for preventive measures; the urgent task of dealing with climate change; the recognition of our responsibility as stewards of this fragile Earth.