After the Fire: Chile's Volunteers Strong arms and Stronger Hearts

By Chris Gascon, Chile - I could hardly believe the devastation as I walked through the streets of Quebrada Santa Cruz, above Valparaiso, Chile. It was difficult to understand how the fires had moved in the way they did. Entire rows of houses destroyed, yet, for some reason, some houses here and there, stood untouched. The streets were littered with burnt out roofing sheets, home appliances, remnants of spring boxes, utensils, stoves, bathtubs, sinks, bicycles and the carcasses of vehicles. Volunteers loaded truck after truck and shoveled rubble aside.

Merely 5 days after raging fires had been extinguished, fires that destroyed nearly 3000 houses on the hillsides above the city center, families were hard at work clearing their properties with the help of government workers and hundreds upon hundreds of volunteers who flocked to the area during the Easter holidays, shovels and rakes in hand; strong arms and stronger hearts. The fire sparked in one of the ravines, and gradually made its way toward the inhabited areas. While brush fires are not an unusual occurrence in the summertime, strong winds fed flames which soon spread to other ravines, attacking it seemed, houses from all sides. Diego and Raquel, residents of 4a Calle on Cerro La Cruz, kept their eyes on the approaching flames, repeatedly climbing 94 steps to the top of the street every 10 minutes, or so, to assess whether the flames would cross over. When all of a sudden they saw that the flames were arriving from below, it was too late and all there was left was to run, helping her asthmatic father make it down the hill. Sadly, her brother was unable to save himself.

A few houses over, Pedro, and his two sons, Luis and Pedro junior, were hard at work clearing three plots of land where their respective houses were burnt to the ground. ‘We managed to save the car, that is all’, said Luis, ‘and we are now all living at my sister’s, further down the hill’. Pedro and his sons, hope for government support to rebuild homes for all three families, their spirit unwavering in the face of adversity. With the Chilean flag planted on their property, just as it is on everyone else’s, they stood proud, thanking me for my concern and giving me a thumbs up as I made to leave.

Chile has been assailed by two natural disasters, back to back, over that last weeks. An earthquake in the north has displaced some 21,000 persons, followed by the fires in Valparaiso, a well-known tourist destination in the wine country. President Bachelet has reached out the country stating that Chilean spirit and solidarity will ensure the way forward and that help was coming. Temporary houses, known as mediaguas will soon be provided along with other forms of support. When asked about this forthcoming assistance, Ricardo, the owner of what was once the largest house in his sector, now stood on a bare concrete platform and told me: “I have some savings, you know. I am not the worst off around here”.