Chile — Quickly, as its all-hands-on-deck here in Valle Chacabuco. Everyonelandscapers, trail builders, mechanics, lawyers, architects, cooks, pilots, along with help from the Chilean Forest Service and armyis pitching in fighting the worse wildfire in memory, with over 5,000 acres burned in the past 48 hours. All of us here feel deeply grateful and proud of how this team has mobilized to protect the park. Everyone is going far beyond the call of duty and banding together to keep morale high.
On Wednesday afternoon (March 26), a neighbor alerted us that a small wildfire had begun within the park, near where the Carretera Austral crosses the Chacabuco River (near the westernmost point of the park). The cause remains unknownperhaps a cigarette butt from a passing car. Very rapidly, our team mobilized to start fighting the fire.
However, dry late summer conditions allowed the fire to spread extremely quickly. One team managed to control the fires point of origin while another moved further east in the valley to tackle the front of the fire. A team of twenty, including machinery operators, worked rapidly to construct a firebreak. However, we did not have enough time to cut off the spread of the fire, which gained heat as it entered some forest.
Throughout Wednesday night until dawn, a smaller team controlled the parks access road. For hours, they managed to limit the fire from spreading to the south side of the road, where the main park headquarters lie.
Early on Thursday morning, however, the fire began spreading up the south side, eventually climbing up the hill toward the forests of Mount Tamango. When assistance arrived from CONAF (the forest service), and the army to fight this sector, our team concentrated on the north side of the river. Covering a wide area next to the Chacabuco River, our volunteer fire brigade was seeing remarkable success extinguishing hotspots until the afternoon winds picked up. As fires started moving rapidly and in many directions, we retreated to re-group and focus on the most important areas for the remaining daylight hours.
One major success thus far was the extinguishing of the leading edge of all fire on the north side of the road. A team led by Evaristo Jara, head trailbuilder, fought until 2am last night to control this critical area. However, on the south side of the road, fires raged all night, gaining new areas of the forested hillside and moving toward the park headquarters.
This morning, CONAF arrived with more help, bringing eight full brigades from around the region, while the army brought two brigades and numerous supply and water trucks. Between this help and our own extended teamincluding members of the construction crew, staff from our sister projects Parque Pumalin and Proyecto Ibera, family and friendswere up to 140 people fighting this fire.
Were now focusing our energies on protecting the park headquarters, as the fire has arrived within a mile of the main buildings. All machines are digging full speed as I type, creating a firebreak to cut the fire before it arrives here. Weve created evacuation plans, tested the sprinkler systems, and are batting down the hatches. With afternoon winds picking up, the fires are moving fast in this directionbut the past few days have proved good training, and weve learned plenty about controlling fires, particularly in the grasslands.
Two days into this fight, its hard to know exactly how this will end, or the implications for the park. The guanacos seem to be heading out of the fire zones well; very little huemul habitat has burned; fall is a relatively good time, ecologically speaking, for fires as few animals have young or eggs. The drive into the park certainly looks drastically different, with most of the way from the western entrance to the park headquarters burned, but we hope within several years, grasses will rebound. Anyway, its too soon to think about these questions, with the fire still burning actively.
But the important part: we are all safe and sound here, with solid plans for all situations. These have been exhausting and challenging days (and nights) but we are hoping for the best, and truly appreciative of all the help we are receiving.