Monday, March 31—After five days of round-the-clock fighting, wildfires in Valle Chacabuco are under control but continue to burn in several forested pockets. All fast-spreading grassland fires have been contained, including the flames that threatened the park headquarters on Friday night. We are grateful to report that thus far, no one has been injured and no buildings affected in the fire (although many a truck and tractor have taken a beating!)
CONAF fire specialists are still at work on official maps of the burned area, but we estimate that approximately 7,000 acres have been affected, mostly grasslands but also areas of southern beech forest. Officials are calling this the worst fire the region has seen in decades. The burn stretches from the Carretera Austral east until just before the park headquarters, and from the Chacabuco River south toward Tamango National Reserve. While the fire did jump the Chacabuco River in one spot, the flames remained contained until CONAF fighters extinguished them yesterday, eliminating this threat to vast forested areas on the river’s north side.
Now, our challenge is to monitor and extinguish remaining hotspots in forested pockets on the north side of Mount Tamango, which burn much hotter than grassland fires and are proving challenging to extinguish entirely.
Even smoldering coals pose a threat to the surrounding forest, as when the infamous Patagonian winds pick up, these fires can reignite. Spells of rain and snow have helped our fight, but we most likely must work for another week or more to fully extinguish this fire.
Between our team, help from our sister project Parque Pumalin, CONAF firefighters, ONEMI (the national public safety and emergency service) and the Chilean army, approximately 200 people are out fighting now. CONAF has mobilized brigades from the Aysen, Los Lagos, Los Rios, La Araucanía, and Valparaiso regions, ten in total, while the army has sent in three brigades.
ONEMI has sent in three helicopters, to dump water on high-elevation areas that are difficult to reach on foot.
Over the past five long days, our team has shown incredible energy, dedication, skill, and good cheer. From gauchos-turned-park guards lending their knowledge of the terrain to mechanics repairing water transport vehicles, each person here has played a role.
The heavy machinery team has worked magic creating tracks for vehicles to bring tanks of water high up the mountain to dose coals.
In parallel, others work with picks, shovels and chainsaws to isolate and bury hot logs and trunks.
The park restaurant serves as base camp for the ever-hungry team, whipping up endless rounds of sandwiches and MEAT!
At the park office, others help coordinate between team and relay messages. The intra-park radio system has been hopping, allowing dispersed groups to stay updated on each other’s progress and call in extra help when needed.
Wildfires never occur naturally in Patagonia, as there is almost no lightning. All wildfires are human-caused; the likely origin of this fire was a candle lit at the site of a small altar on the side of the road. Past wildfires in Patagonia have shown that the forests are slow to recover, requiring decades or even centuries to regenerate fully. Luckily, only small patches of forest have burned, almost none of which is habitat of the endangered huemul. Grasslands should rebound more rapidly, but still may take several years. Hopefully, we’ll have many volunteers to lend a hand in the restoration work that is surely to come.
We’ll keep you posted as the wildfire story unfolds. For now, we are so thankful to all who have mobilized to help us, and glad to have good news to report.
Many thanks for your thoughts, notes, and encouragement—we are so appreciative.
Kris Tompkins and the rest of the Conservacion Patagonica team