Chile — Chilean investigators Saturday arrested and later freed on bond an Israeli tourist they believe inadvertently set off a massive wildfire that has ravaged a wide swath of pristine forest in Patagonia.
High winds for days fanned a blaze that began Tuesday at the Torres del Paine National Park, a 2,400-square-kilometer (927-square-mile) paradise of mountains, forests and lakes in deep southern Chile.
A drop in the wind speed and higher humidity on Saturday helped slow the fire’s rapid advance. So far, it has destroyed some 11,500 hectares (28,000 acres) of woodland and scrub, officials said.
Israeli national Roten Singer, 23, has acknowledged that he did not properly extinguish a roll of toilet paper he had been burning, said prosecutor Juan Melendez after a hearing in Puerto Natales.
“The problem was that paper was set on fire in a park, and it was not put out properly … The penalty at the moment, for the infraction, is a violation of forest law. It is a minor penalty,” he added.
Singer, who was held briefly and then freed pending trial, cannot leave the area and faces 41-60 days in jail and fines of $80-300, officials said.
The fire broke out on a path that goes by Lake Grey on the northwestern side of the park, officials said.
The governor of Ultima Esperanza, Chile’s southernmost province where the park is located, told Radio Cooperative that the improved weather will finally let crews “battle the fire in a direct and frontal way.”
“Thanks to the weather window,” said Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter, “we expect to control three of the six fire hot spots.”
However Hinzpeter, who was visiting the Office of National Emergency (ONEMI) where firefighting operations are being coordinated, warned that weather conditions were likely to deteriorate again.
“This will remain, for the next days, a dangerous fire, violent and difficult to control,” he said.
Environment Minister Maria Ignacia Benitez said the government would file a legal case against anyone found responsible for setting off the fire.
“This is clearly negligence on the part of tourists,” she said. “It may have been accidental … but here there is also a responsibility of the people who do not respect the authorized (fire) areas.”
President Sebastian Pinera announced Friday that the park, visited by more than 100,000 people each year, would remain shut throughout January.
The blaze erupted late Tuesday and advanced rapidly in dry conditions, forcing authorities to evacuate 700 people, mostly tourists, from the park, which is located some 3,000 kilometers south of Santiago.
The Chilean government has deployed four planes and a helicopter to the remote mountainous region, where 300 firefighters, soldiers and forest rangers battled to control the blaze.
Neighboring Argentina, which has its own forests just across the border from Torres del Paine, has sent in emergency teams to help.
Aerial photographs showed a vast cloud of smoke obscuring the beautiful backdrop of snow-covered granite peaks, wild steppes and turquoise lakes.
Environmentalist group Accion Ecologica criticized what it said was the government’s slow response, drawing an unfavorable comparison with its rapid crackdown on students protesting education reforms.
“It would have been great to see a government as gifted at throwing water on the flames consuming our natural heritage, as they are (at shooting water at Chilean) citizens defending their rights,” said activist Luis Mariano Rendon.