Author(s): Michele Steinberg. Published on October 2, 2014.

COMMENTARY

“Worst ever”? Let’s hope so.
Observations on the recent wildfire in Valparaiso, Chile

by Michele Steinberg

THE TRENDS THAT LINK DESTRUCTIVE WILDFIRES around the world can be eerily similar. Media reported in 2012 on the “worst ever” fire in Colorado, referring to the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs, which suffered the loss of 346 homes and two civilian lives. Just one year later, a new “worst ever” emerged out of the Black Forest Fire just a few miles away, where two more residents died and more than 500 homes burned.

In April, when news broke of the “worst ever” wildfire in Valparaiso, the colorful port city near Chile’s capital of Santiago, news media were quick to note the fiery history of this region and referenced the previous “worst” experience, which took place in February 2013. That fire destroyed more than 100 homes and injured 27 people, including five children. More than 1,200 people were evacuated from their homes.

But April’s fire in Valparaiso exceeded the previous worst-ever scenarios in some significant ways. First, there were 15 deaths attributed to the fire. More than 10,000 people—out of a population of slightly more than 250,000—were ordered to evacuate. An estimated 500 homes were destroyed. And, unlike the 2013 fire—which a local man was arrested for allegedly accidentally starting while using a welder’s torch—April’s blaze was a classic result of conditions that were ripe for nature’s flames to erupt. The city is surrounded by natural preserves and forests that have suffered from years-long drought. According to local officials, temperatures on April 12, when the fire began, were unseasonably high, and the region was experiencing high winds as well—a combination that is ideal for an ignition to grow into a massive blaze. The fire, which started in a remote wooded area near a rural road and was mostly likely accidental, moved from forests and trees to buildings and homes, with the dense and shoddily built structures in Valparaiso’s poorest areas providing ample fuel for the fire to spread. 

Following the destructive fire, however, officials were quoted in the media using words and conveying concepts that few Americans ever hear in the aftermath of a disastrous wildfire. In the U.S., officials tend to be quick to sympathize with victims, and unfortunately also quick to defend municipal decisions and responses against the anger and blame they know will be immediately directed at them. The typical story usually includes the words “vow to rebuild,” and “return to normalcy.” In our litigious society, most elected officials are loathe to admit prior awareness of any vulnerability.

By contrast, Valparaiso’s mayor, Jorge Castro, displayed abundant candor in the fire’s aftermath. "We are too vulnerable as a city,” he told Chile’s 24H channel. “We have been the builders and architects of our own danger.” Chilean President Michelle Bachelet’s comments regarding rebuilding and recovery struck a similar tone. Rather than the classic vow to put everything back the way it was immediately, Bachelet indicated her unwillingness to allow rebuilding that does not take safety into account, and to put people, especially poor people, back into harm’s way. "We think this is a tremendous tragedy, but ... it is also a tremendous opportunity to do things right,” she told The WorldPost. “What we're looking at in terms of reconstruction is how to rebuild in a more orderly manner, better and more worthy" of Valparaiso's status as a World Heritage City.

Bachelet may be involved in disaster recovery and reconstruction for her entire term of office. Just days before the Valparaiso fire, on April 3, an 8.6 magnitude earthquake had struck the northern part of the country, followed by a 7.6 aftershock. The event triggered the evacuation of an astounding 928,000 people and caused serious structural damage to 2,500 homes. The good news for the president, however, is that her predecessors throughout government, including officials at the local level, had prepared for such events like earthquakes and tsunamis very differently than they had for wildfire. CNN reported on the effectiveness of long-standing seismic building codes in reducing the magnitude of destruction and loss of life in the April 3 earthquake. Bachelet praised the preparation efforts of locals, including life safety education and emergency drills, in keeping the death toll to six people.

Getting Proactive: Fighting the wildfire problem before the fires even start - First Word

NFPA President James Pauley highlights NFPA’s efforts to combat the growing and devastating impacts of wildfire.

Planning and building standards can work for fire-prone areas, too. Residents can learn simple practices to keep their homes and properties from burning down during fires that encroach on developed land. NFPA’s Firewise program (firewise.org) covers these practical principles, and the organization’s standards include how to reduce wildfire hazards to structures, and how to develop proper firefighting infrastructure for new developments. Americans have learned important lessons from wildfires like Waldo Canyon. The joint report from the Fire Adapted Communities Coalition found that building design and materials improvements and maintenance could have reduced losses in Colorado Springs, that reducing vegetative fuels is important, and that a community approach to these types of mitigation efforts works best.

NFPA will be watching Chile’s efforts to rebuild and recover more safely from this latest disaster. With leadership from all levels of government, and by engaging residents to take part in preparing for their own safety, perhaps the April 2014 Valparaiso fire will be the worst the country ever has to experience.

Michele Steinberg is program manager in NFPA’s Wildland Fire Operations Division.