Chile’s deadly wildfires wiped out neighborhoods. One stood unscathed.

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QUILPUÉ, Chile — Heading up the hill, on the way to the neighborhood, everything looked black.

On one side of the road, the charred remains of houses and the skeletons of trees. Beyond, the smoking husk of Chile’s national botanical garden. The air still carried the acrid smell of the historic wildfires that left at least 131 people dead, destroyed thousands of homes in the seaside Valparaíso region and plunged the Andean nation into mourning.

But at the crest of the hill, there was a stunning sight. In this desert of ash and soot, an oasis.

The neighborhood of Botania gleamed upon the hilltop, its neat rows of brightly painted houses undamaged. Cars sat undisturbed on its ash-free roads.

That this community of 80 or so houses somehow emerged unscathed from what have been called the deadliest fires in Chilean history has generated viral social media posts and headlines of disbelief and awe this past week.

“Incredible!” said El Reporte Diario.

“WHAT IS THE REASON?” asked CHV Noticias.

The story of how Botania was saved when so much else was lost at once points to possible solutions and preventive measures in a country and world dealing with increasingly devastating wildfires, while also revealing the stubborn social inequalities that often exacerbate such disasters.

Massive wildfires are a new threat to Chile. Here’s why they’re so deadly.

Botania owes its escape to the disciplined execution of a fire prevention plan crafted by Chilean forestry officials and a local nongovernmental organization, with support from the U.S. government. For months, with more than $20,000 in funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, community leaders had bought supplies and prepared for the next big fire.

“With tools and with training, good things can happen,” said Tim Callaghan, a senior USAID official. “And this is clearly a success.”

But as the fires spread this month, ultimately consuming as many as 6,000 houses and sending thousands into homelessness, the plan and training that would be so successful in Botania was not available in many of the communities that turned out to need it most.


Burned areas in black or gray

Unburned

vegetation in red

Source: Maxar Technologies

Burned areas in black or gray

Unburned

vegetation in red

Source: Maxar Technologies

Burned areas in black or gray

Unburned

vegetation in red

Source: Maxar Technologies

Burned areas in black or gray

Unburned

vegetation in red

Source: Maxar Technologies

Where the fires were most destructive

Officials estimate that 70 percent of the region’s destroyed homes were concentrated in irregular settlements called “tomas ilegales.” The conditions in many of the settlements were so combustible — improper forest management, trash-strewn streets, houses built with cheap, flammable materials — that whole communities burned in a matter of minutes.

It was a tragic reminder of Chile’s failure to solve its ongoing housing crisis. In recent years, rising rents, coupled with stagnant incomes and the long shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, have placed standardized housing out of reach for tens of thousands of people. Many have ended up in the tomas ilegales.

The proliferation of the settlements has coincided with a sharp escalation in forest fires. Authorities believe this month’s blazes were started intentionally. But scientists say what sped the fires’ spread was a volatile combination of drought, climate change and El Niño. Three times more land in Chile burned in the past decade than in the one before, noted a study in the journal Scientific Reports.

The fires of recent years have been particularly intense in central Chile, where the region of Valparaíso, popular with tourists, has been remade by the irregular enclaves. Roughly one-fourth of all of the country’s tomas ilegales are found along its slopes and hills, housing more than 30,000 people, according to a national survey.

Some of the settlements are more established, with running water and electricity. Others are little more than a collection of wooden shacks. The unpaved roads are strewn with debris. Flammable brush is everywhere. Most are beyond the reach of state services.

Sebastián Todd Navarro has lived all of his 25 years inside one such community, Villa Independencia, situated above a bustling commercial hub. He has rarely felt the support of the state. Cut off from city lines, his family for years had to get water and electricity informally.

He discerned state neglect again on the afternoon of Feb. 2. The city has a fire warning system. Yet Navarro said the first sign of danger was not his phone buzzing, but the blaze spreading below.

“A sight I can never forget,” he said.

It raced up the hill, exploiting all of the brush and trash left throughout the community. The wooden shacks exploded into flames.

Navarro said he drove down the hill to safety. By the time he made it, his community had virtually disappeared. It had taken less than 10 minutes, according to news reports.

When Navarro returned, he found bodies everywhere. For days, he said, the corpses remained. People covered them in metal cans to keep the dogs from feeding on them, while waiting for state workers to come help take them away.

‘We could no longer be spectators’

Neglect was not the story of Botania, whose path toward salvation began in late 2022, with another fire. That blaze burned through the nearby botanical garden, which housed some of the world’s rarest tree species, charring nearly 10 acres.

Its proximity to Botania, a middle-class neighborhood built atop an isolated hilltop and surrounded by combustible brush, terrified residents.

“We could no longer be spectators,” said resident Cecilia Cisternas.

Just then, Quilpué city officials asked if the neighborhood wanted to be part of a new pilot project. The city had identified Botania as one of the most vulnerable communities, and this project was a way to start preparing for the next fire. Botania residents quickly agreed.

The initiative was led by a local NGO, Caritas Chile, which had partnered with Chilean forest officials and received a grant from USAID in 2022 to train communities on fire prevention strategies. The new program launched in 14 neighborhoods, encompassing more than 12,000 people. The irregular settlements were intentionally left out.

“Unfortunately, the reality of the settlements is complex,” said Quilpué Mayor Valeria Melipillán. “They are almost all in areas of risk, prone to fires, flooding and mass removal — places where no regulated construction would be possible, making it very complex to establish adequate prevention plans there.”

A spokesperson with USAID said the organization wants to broaden the program to include more vulnerable communities. “While the informal settlements were not included in the first phase of this program,” the spokesperson said, “conversations are ongoing about how to incorporate additional at-risk communities in future phases.”

For Botania, Chilean forestry officers produced a risk report to determine the greatest fire risks and coached residents on how to address them.

“The plan was simple,” said Simón Berti, the president of Chile’s forestry engineer association. “Eliminate all vegetation near the houses. Cut down trees, clear out all dried pastureland.”

Botania residents plunged themselves into the arcana of forest fire prevention.

“I don’t work in forestry,” said Rodrigo Vargas, president of the community fire prevention organization. “I’m just another resident. We had to learn everything from scratch to get a hold on the basic concepts.”

They cleaved a wide path around the community, removing all debris to create a firebreak. They held weekly planning sessions and installed a command center equipped with an electric generator and walkie-talkies. They regularly cleared the surrounding area of all potentially flammable materials, cutting back trees and retrieving trash. They learned to use water sprayers to soak the ground to slow the advance of the flames.

Then time ran out for preparations. The fire had arrived.

Deadly wildfires in Chile have killed at least 112 people and devastated communities. The neighborhood Botania remained untouched. (Video: Sebastián Helena)

Relief, happiness — then sorrow

As people began to evacuate, Vargas became convinced all of their preparations had been for nothing. This inferno was unlike any he’d ever seen.

“The force of the fire,” he said. “Its violence.”

He made it to safety below, where he waited for any information on what had happened in Botania. Finally, a message from a neighbor: Botania still stood. It hadn’t burned.

Vargas didn’t believe it. The neighbor had to have been mistaken. Vargas waited until the flames died down. Then he climbed the hill on foot until he reached its zenith.

“It was one of the most beautiful things,” he said. “It was still there.”

None of the houses had been damaged.

The relief and joy he felt, however, quickly gave way to sorrow. He took a moment to absorb the view from the neighborhood. There was little but a black sea of ash.

His Botania was all that had survived.

McCoy reported from Rio de Janeiro. Marina Dias in Brasília contributed to this report.

correction

A previous version of this story said 10 people had been arrested. Those arrests were in connection with a previous fire. The story has been updated.



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