Volunteers firefighters in Chile set up water supply system for Supertanker

Firefighters in Chile, mostly volunteer, are battling fires that have burned over half a million acres

As the number of people killed and the acres burned in Chile continue to grow, more attention is being focused on the 5,000 firefighters battling the flames.

747 Supertanker
The 747 Supertanker reflected in a portable water tank at the Santiago Airport.
Almost all of the firefighters in the cities, towns, and rural areas are volunteers. On Thursday I talked with some of them at the Santiago Airport that were supplying water for the SuperTanker. They explained that in their department the only paid person was the Conductor, a position that in the United States we would call an engineer, chauffeur, or driver. The Conductor we talked with said he lives in the fire station with his wife and children.

Firefighters Santiago Airport
Firefighters at the Santiago Airport, January 26, 2017.
The several dozen firefighters at the airport water supply operation, who represented multiple departments, were very professional, and had what appeared to be well-maintained equipment.

Between refills on the 747 the firefighters lined up wearing their full bunker gear and stood at attention. They had just learned about the death of a fellow firefighter and wanted to honor his or her’s service. 

1,000 structures destroyed in Chile wildfires

There have been at least seven deaths

Above: NASA satellite photo showing smoke from the wildfires in Chile January 26, 2017. The red dots represent heat detected by the sensors.

The siege of wildfires in Chile continues to worsen, with more than 1,000 structures destroyed in the last two days. There are reports that virtually the entire town of Santa Olga was consumed, including approximately 1,000 homes well as schools, businesses, and the post office.

The largest fires are in central Chile within 300 miles south of the capital Santiago. At times smoke has reduced visibility in the city to about a mile. On Thursday I watched an air tanker take off at the airport and within 15-20 seconds after leaving the runway it disappeared in the smoke.

The wildfire situation in Chile is the worst in recent memory, occurring during severe drought and higher than average temperatures.

Four wildland firefighters and and one air tanker pilot have been killed battling the fires since December 28. An additional three to six civilians have also died in the fires, with the number varying in different reports.

The 5,000 firefighters assigned are up against a seemingly impossible task as the burned areas 588,108 acres (238,000 ha) have grown substantially in the last few days, damaging towns, ranches, and vineyards.

747 Supertanker Santiago Chile
The 747 Supertanker at Santiago, Chile, January 25, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The world’s largest air tanker, the 747 SuperTanker, has been assisting the firefighters in Chile since it arrived January 25, dropping 19,200 gallons on each mission. At least one and possibly two Russian IL-76 air tankers will also join the fight, with a capacity of 13,000 gallons. Authorities are hoping that other firefighting aircraft from around the world can be found to add to the temporary fleet, including water-scooping tankers.

The weather forecast for Chile indicates the wildfire situation is not going to improve anytime soon, and predicts more hot, dry, and windy conditions.

Another firefighter killed in Chile wildfires

Ten days after three firefighters were killed while fighting a wildfire in Chile, another has been killed while battling one of the numerous blazes occurring during an extended drought in Chile.

According to AFP:

The man died after getting stuck while trying to help a family escape from their home near the city of Constitucion, a source in the fire service told AFP.

Our sincerest condolences go out to the family, coworkers, and friends of the firefighter.

Update on wildfires in Chile

Above: Wildfires in Chile detected by a satellite, January 23, 2017.

The information below was part of a briefing by Chile’s Minister of the Interior about the siege of wildfires that have been affecting the country for several weeks, in part due to an extended drought. It is translated by Google and is a little rough.


“In order to carry out a new evaluation and follow-up on the effects of the forest fires affecting the country, the authorities met this afternoon at the premises of the National Emergency Office (ONEMI), the third National Emergency Operations, headed by the Ministry of the Interior, Director ONEMI, Health, Public Works, Defense, Transport and Telecommunications, Energy, Conaf, Subtel, SEC, Carabineros, Firefighters and PDI.

At the conclusion of the meeting, the Minister of the Interior, Mario Fernández, reported that the situation resulting from forest fires continues to be serious, although there has been a slight improvement. “We have 42 active fires in seven regions, the most serious fires are taking place in the Sixth and Seventh Region, some are decreasing in their magnitude. As for the fires that we had worried about yesterday in the Metropolitan Region, especially in the sectors of Pirque and Alhue, we were informed that these tend to be controlled in the coming days. ”

The authority also noted that the situation resulting from these incidents is being monitored and controlled, through an increase in the provision of both material and human resources. “We have deployed air assets, machinery and more personnel including a considerable increase in the Armed Forces.” Other aspects addressed by the Minister were the support received from the private sector, mainly from the Chilean Chamber of Construction, in terms of land clearing materials for the purpose of establishing firewalls.

As for the weather conditions, these will continue to be complex and adverse to combat the fire, in this respect, yesterday (Saturday) was issued a new weather alert by heatwave, which will be in force until next week. With this, almost one month is complete (from 27 December) alerts at high temperatures to the south central part of the country, a situation which results in the conditions known as  30-30-30 .

Regarding this situation, the Director of ONEMI, Ricardo Toro, stated that “the National Civil Protection System is fully activated and all necessary resources have been made available to safeguard people’s lives, which is the main objective. Which translates into about 4000 people working in these fires, including officials of the Armed Forces, Conaf firefighters, firefighters volunteers, staff of municipalities, governorates, intendances and private companies.

In addition, the Director of ONEMI, pointed out that air resources have been added, 37 ships (between helicopters and airplanes) fighting in the affected regions plus the support of heavy machinery. In this context, it should be noted that ONEMI has shipped more than 75,000 liters of fuel, more than 9,000 bottles of water, more than  1,000  blankets, over a thousand grooming kit for men and women,  2,000  masks, thousand pairs of gloves ,   6,000  food rations for 12 hours and  4,000  tools.

It should be noted that the main impact caused by this situation of forest fires is recorded in the O’Higgins Region, where 78 people are reported victims, 117 housed and 38 homes destroyed. In the Maule Region, 51 people are reported affected, 40 people are housed and 19 homes are destroyed. On the other hand, in the Metropolitan Region are reported 12 people affected and 7 homes destroyed in the commune of Curacaví.

There were also 13 houses destroyed in the commune of Bulnes, Region of Biobío.

It should be remembered that since yesterday it was decided to extend the declaration of Affected Area by Catastrophe and Catastrophe Area with a constitutional exception for the communes of Licantén and Hualañé in the Region of Maule and for the commune of Bulnes in the region of Biobío. It should be noted that this is added to the provinces of Colchagua and Cardenal Caro in the Region of O’Higgins, and the communes of Cauquenes and Vichuquén in Region VII.

Finally, Minister Fernández pointed out that in the affected places central government authorities have been deployed, and monitoring of situations resulting from the effects of forest fires will continue.”

Worst wildfires in Chile in a decade

President Michelle Bachelet declared “a catastrophe zone and a state of emergency in the areas affected by the fires”.

Above: the red dots represent heat at fires in Chile and Argentina detected by a satellite January 21, 2017. NASA photo.

As Chile experiences its largest siege of wildfires in a decade the President has taken steps to enable the military to assist firefighters. Many fires are burning near the capital, Santiago, and within 200 miles south of the city.

More than a dozen blazes have burned almost 50,000 hectares (123,000 acres). Reuters reported that the largest has consumed 24,000 hectares (59,000 acres) 87 miles south of Santiago.

Chile President wildfires tweet

The video below is from CHV News. It is in Spanish, but has several minutes of video of the fires. Google translated the title and description: “37 fire assets affect the south central zone of Chile – CHV NEWS -President Bachelet announced this day that international aid was requested, as the outbreaks do not provide.”