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Chile’s campaign to combat wildfires shifts to Bío-Bío Region

Santiago, Chile – 04/01/2012 – as published by The Santiago Times.

Flames threaten nearby town of Quillon, as Torres del Paine blaze is brought under control.

More than 604 people have been left homeless, 162 homes destroyed and one man killed since a massive fire began on Saturday in the southern Bío-Bío Region, 280 miles south of Santiago.

The Bío-Bío fire started just days after another massive fire took off in Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park last week, devastating over 30,000 acres of native forest and brush country.

Vicente Nuñez, the director of Chile’s National Emergency Office (Onemi), said the Bío-Bío fire “had become especially complex” as it threatens populated areas and rural communities in the Maule Region just south of Bío-Bío.

Nuñez also confirmed the identity of a victim found in one of the destroyed houses: 75-year-old Juan Ernesto Campos Bello, who had refused to evacuate his home.

The fire, which has now consumed 20,000 acres, began in nine separate locations, leading to a strong suspicion of arson.

Luis Mayol, Chile’s newly-appointed Agricultural Minister, told reporters yesterday that the situation was “very strange and naturally, the government is very concerned.”

Tensions between the indigenous Mapuche community and forestry companies have led the Chilean Lumber Corporation, an industry lobby group, to suggest the fires were caused by extremist Mapuche protesters, following the burning of a helicopter belonging to Conaf, Chile’s national forest corporation on Friday morning.

Mayol said the authorities are following several leads, including a possible link between the fires and the Mapuche, Chile’s largest indigenous group.

The combination of this blaze in the Bío-Bío Region and fires further south in Torres del Paine, allegedly caused by 23-year old Israeli tourist Rotem Singer, led President Sebastián Piñera to propose tougher sentencing for acts of arson.

Unseasonably hot weather and drought condition led to 48 separate fires reported over the weekend. Six planes, 10 helicopters and nearly 800 forest service personnel, firefighters, soldiers and private employees from both Chile and Argentina have joined forces to fight the fires.

The Bío-Bío blaze consumed a wood panel manufacturing plant owned by Celulosa Arauco, and led the Copec-owned company to halt pulp production and evacuate employees at their nearby paper mill.

Arauco estimates that 9,900 acres of forestry plantations have been affected, but said in a statement that the company “is still evaluating damage from the fire and isn’t in a position yet to quantify the effects.” Copec’s shares dropped 4 percent Monday, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

The fire has also caused significant losses to the local agricultural industry. “It will be difficult to recover,” one local farmer told La Tecera. “It’s a blow that will affect hundreds of jobs.”

In light of the recent and widespread devastation caused by the fires, President Piñera has vowed to create a new office to coordinate firefighting efforts in the future.

Proposed legislative reforms seek to coordinate all relevant parties in firefighting, from regional governments and the agriculture ministry, to Conaf, firefighters and the Armed Forces.

“We are facing an extremely vulnerable situation,” Piñera said Monday. “Three regions are under red alert. In addition we have eight regions with different types of fire alerts. This undoubtedly puts enormous pressure on resources.”

Piñera urged local residents and tourists alike to exercise “extreme prudence and care” to protect the nation’s parks, plants and wildlife. Nuñez, the director of National Emergency Office, agreed stating, “We need the public’s cooperation.”