Response to fires hurts unpopular Pinera

Response to fires hurts unpopular Pinera

04 January 2012

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Chile — RIO DE JANEIRO: Bushfires have swept through unseasonably hot, dry parts of southern Chile as firefighters struggled to extinguish the blazes and the government of Sebastian Pinera, Chile’s beleaguered billionaire president, defended its response.

The fires are believed to have begun in the majestic Torres del Paine National Park last Tuesday, and broke out in other areas over the weekend.

An elderly man who refused to leave one area was the only reported death, but 233 square kilometres of forest have been destroyed, about 100 homes burned, hundreds of people evacuated, and a plywood factory owned by ARAUCO, a timber producer, ruined.
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Mr Pinera’s government rejected accusations it was slow in responding.

Protests demanding changes in transportation, energy and above all education have driven his approval ratings down to 23 per cent, the lowest for any Chilean leader since General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship ended in 1990.

Mr Pinera said a red alert was declared just two hours after the Torres del Paine fire started on December 27, and measures were quickly taken to combat the outbreak.

He said the fire began in a zone of ”very difficult access, with very difficult topography and additionally with conditions of intense winds”.

Argentina and Uruguay have contributed to a force of more than 750 firefighters deployed in the south of Chile, and Mr Pinera said Chile had the helicopters and aircraft needed to fight the fires.

So far, the fires have burned more than 7 per cent of Torres del Paine, a tourist attraction known for its soaring granite peaks, and areas of two other regions, Bio Bio and Maule. Mr Pinera said on Monday that four of six focal areas in Torres del Paine were coming under control, and that the park could partially reopen by tomorrow.

Fires have whipped through Torres del Paine before. In 2005, a 31-year-old Czech tourist accidentally started a fire in the park that caused more than $5 million damage. The government of the Czech Republic subsequently issued a letter of apology and offered to send forestry experts to assist in the recuperation.

An Israeli tourist, Rotem Singer, 23, has been charged with starting the park fire. People travelling with Mr Singer said he set fire to toilet paper after going to the toilet, and then failed to put it out completely. But he strongly denied the accusation, saying his translator may have contributed to misunderstandings.

The Israeli embassy in Chile said in a statement on Monday it would not take part in the ”judicial procedure” involving Mr Singer. ”We understand his family will hire an attorney for his defence,” the embassy said. In the statement, the embassy added that it shared Chileans’ ”distress over the environmental damage in Torres del Paine”.

The New York Times

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