Deadly fires began in at least four spots on Feb. 2 in Chile’s Valparaíso region and have caused significant damage as of Feb. 5. It is believed that these are Chile’s deadliest forest fires in history and are the most devastating disaster in the country since the 2010 earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 500 people and caused $30 billion in losses.
According to the Chilean National Disaster Prevention and Response Service (SENAPRED), there are still 161 fires active in the country as of Feb. 5, but 102 are controlled, leaving 40 still being fought, down slightly from the 92 fires burning on Saturday, Feb. 3. The simultaneous ignition of the fires in four areas has led some officials to cite arson as a possible cause to investigate.
The health ministry declared a health alert for Valparaíso. A state of emergency was declared by President Gabriel Boric, who also said he would make all resources available as necessary to help deal with the fires. France24 quoted Boric as saying, “The country faces a ‘tragedy of very great magnitude.’”
By Saturday, Feb. 3, nearly 20,000 acres had burned in and near the towns of Quilpué and Villa Alemana in just one day. The fast-moving fire complicated evacuations, leading to deaths and injuries.
One of the most affected areas was the city of Viña del Mar, where its famous 94-year-old botanical gardens were consumed by fire. A coastal beach resort, the city is home to 300,000 people and hosts a popular music festival. The wildfires have left at least 1,600 people homeless in the densely-populated city, where entire neighborhoods were burned. Several hospitals and nursing homes were evacuated due to power outages caused by the fire.
On the city’s edge, the hillside neighborhood of Villa Independencia saw several blocks of businesses and homes destroyed. The hilly landscape surrounding Viña del Mar has made evacuation, fire fighting, and search and rescue more complicated.
(Photo: The forest fire brigade works tirelessly to extinguish fire outbreaks in Chile. Credit: Presidencia de Chile via X)
Unusually high temperatures, low humidity and high wind speeds made controlling the wildfires difficult. Central Chile experienced a week of record-setting temperatures spurred by El Niño. Temperatures reached over 104 degrees Fahrenheit. High heat has also caused droughts and generally increased wildfire risk.
Chile is currently in a “megadrought,” which began in 2010 and is attributed to global warming. According to Down to Earth, “Chile has received 30 per cent less rainfall than normal in the past decade, with rainfall deficits of 80-90 per cent. This has transformed the landscape of the country from lush and green to plain dry.”
Down to Earth cites a World Meteorological Organization report, titled State of the Climate in Latin America and Caribbean, 2021, which said the drought had also led to “water scarcity, food insecurity, loss of livelihoods and massively impacted biodiversity.” Chile also experienced wildfires in February 2022, which destroyed nearly 1 million acres of land and killed more than 22 people.
- On Feb. 6, the death toll was 131, with more than 300 still missing. The government expects this number to rise as some of the most affected areas have not yet been reached.
- According to SENAPRED, more than 60,000 acres have burned so far.
- The fires damaged nearly 15,000 homes, according to authorities as of Feb. 6.
- BBC interviewed a resident in Viña del Mar’s El Olivar neighborhood who stated that most residents were older adults, which makes evacuations more challenging.
- Reuters reports that “Deputy Interior Minister Manuel Monsalve on Sunday said 165 fires raged across Chile and estimated about 14,000 homes have been damaged in the Viña del Mar and Quilpué areas alone.”
Currently, emergency aid is focused on evacuations, sheltering, feeding and providing for immediate needs. Direct cash assistance will be a critical aspect of recovery as it allows families to make spending decisions and prioritize their needs.
Once residents are allowed back into neighborhoods, they will assess and remediate the damages. It’s important to note that fires often leach deadly toxins into the soil, resulting in a lengthier clean-up time.
Support local organizations
It is important to provide support to local organizations throughout all disaster phases. These organizations are better informed about local culture than outside entities and will be on the ground for years to come.
For international organizations, CDP recommends looking for organizations with a history of working in the country, connections to the community and locally hired staff, as they can navigate issues faster than an organization that has never worked there.
Support at-risk populations
Those in already precarious situations — such as older adults, people with physical or mental health disabilities, and people living in poverty — may find their circumstances worsened in the face of disaster. Organizations working with at-risk populations must have plans to mitigate the disaster’s impacts. Organizations led by marginalized populations are also often able to build trust with affected individuals quicker than mainstream organizations.
Fund wildfire and drought mitigation efforts
As Chile is in a megadrought, funders should invest in mitigation efforts. This could include research into land use patterns or other initiatives that look at sustainable agriculture, water conservation or land use.
The Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) has a Global Recovery Fund that provides donors with an efficient, flexible solution to support recovery efforts for people affected by disasters and crises worldwide. Select “2024 Chile Wildfires” from the dropdown menu.
(Photo: The Forest Fire Reinforcement Brigade of the Military Police Regiment No. 1 works to extinguish fire outbreaks in San Pedro, Chile. Credit: Ejército de Chile via X)
Philanthropic and government support
The Chilean government is responding actively to the disaster. The National Director of SENAPRED, Álvaro Hormazábal, explained that “to date, more than 560 tons (of aid) have been delivered and different items have already been sent to the affected people, and the volunteers who are on the ground.”
President Boric visited the region on Feb. 6 and announced measures to help survivors, including suspension of certain utility payments, donations of housing supplies and improved medical leave.
More ways to help
As with most disasters, experts recommend cash donations, which allow on-the-ground agencies to direct funds to the greatest area of need, support economic recovery and ensure donation management does not detract from disaster recovery needs.
CDP has also created a list of suggestions for foundations to consider related to disaster giving. These include:
- Take the long view: Even while focusing on immediate needs, remember that it will take some time for the full range of needs to emerge. Be patient in planning for disaster funding. Recovery will take a long time, and funding will be needed throughout.
- Recognize there are places private philanthropy can help that government agencies might not: Private funders have opportunities to develop innovative solutions to respond to and help prevent or mitigate future disasters that the government cannot execute.
- Prioritize investments in local organizations: Local leaders and organizations play a vital role in providing immediate relief and setting the course for long-term equitable recovery in communities after a disaster. However, these leaders and organizations are mostly under-resourced and underfunded. Grant to locally-led entities as much as possible.
- All funders are disaster philanthropists: Even if your organization does not work in a particular geographic area or fund immediate relief efforts, you can look for ways to tie disaster funding into your existing mission. If you focus on education, health, children or vulnerable populations, disasters present prime opportunities for funding.
- Ask the experts: If you are considering supporting an organization that is positioned to work in an affected area, do some research. CDP and InterAction can provide resources and guidance about organizations working in affected communities.
Drought is often defined as an unusual period of drier than normal weather that leads to a water shortage. Drought causes more deaths and displaces more people than any other disaster.
Weather can significantly affect the frequency and severity of wildfires. Prolonged drought can extend prime wildfire season, making blazes more likely. Additionally, high temperatures and low humidity can quickly dry out vegetation which then becomes potential fuel.
While the average temperature continues to increase at a moderate pace, climate change has caused more frequent extreme weather events, particularly extreme heat.