By Friday afternoon, several hundred people Wandered through the beautiful grounds of Chile's National Botanical GardenMostly unaware that in Viña del Mar, a few hills and across a road, a raging forest fire was barreling toward them.
The danger was soon apparent. Rangers began racing through the park on motorcycles, yelling at visitors to run toward the exit. But when many people got there, the fire had already arrived.
“Thick black smoke was rising above us, so we lay down on the grass inside the gate,” park director Alejandro Peirano recalled Monday morning. “One of my rangers turned to me and said, 'Director, are we going to die?'”
Elsewhere, three other rangers tried to rescue Patricia Araya, 60, a greenhouse manager who lived in the park, and her two grandchildren, as well as a colleague caring for her 92-year-old mother. They reached the door of their room, but the fire was getting closer. “I could feel the heat burning up my back. “I realized they were pieces of burning bark that had fallen on me.”Freddy Sánchez, 50, said Monday, standing guard at the park entrance.
“We had to turn around,” he said. “What your body wants is to find a way out of the heat.”
The crowd on the front lawn survived, a miracle of sorts, 98% of the nearly 1,000 acre plantation was destroyed.
Unfortunately, her mother and two of her grandchildren did not, making up four of the 122 confirmed deaths in the deadliest wildfire in modern history.
Monday, officers with body detection dogs They continued to search for bodies as nearly 40 square kilometers were burnt Fast-moving wildfires ravaged Valparaiso province, a popular tourist destination near Chile's central coast, on Friday.
They counted widespread destruction, including some 15,000 homes and one of Chile's national jewels: the 107-year-old Viña del Mar National Botanical Garden.
A unique place
The botanical garden covers an area of 1.5 square miles. It is one of the largest in the world It is also an important research and conservation center for the region. Over the decades, staff have developed and studied a diverse garden of more than 1,000 species of trees, including some of the rarest trees in the world.
Due to Chile's isolated geography, located between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, the country is home to many endemic plant species, meaning they occur nowhere else in the wild.
The plantation played an important role in the conservation of those species. including many rare cacti. It contains medicinal plants, exotic plants from Europe and Asia, a large species from the remote Juan Fernández Islands in the Pacific and some of the last known Sophora doromiro trees in the world, native to Rapa Nui or Easter. Island. , but they are now extinct in the wild.
“It's a terrible loss. The garden has had many years of research and development of special collections,” said Nolia Alvarez de Roman, a Latin American specialist at Botanic Gardens Conservation International, a global network of botanic gardens.
Perano said the park has been damaged by fires in recent years, including 2013 and 2022, with about a quarter of the land burned. “We're used to it. “We patrol very sensitive areas every day, clean areas and educate people,” he said.
“But this fire was completely unexpected.”, he added. “We've never seen anything on this scale.”
Peirano emphasized that the lives lost are more devastating than the physical damage. Araya has worked at the park for about 40 years, and he and his longtime partner plan to have a new wedding this week and then take a vacation together, Perano said in a television interview.
She had already gone to work on Friday, she said, and her grandchildren, ages 1 and 9, came to stay with her that same day.
Officials reiterated Monday that they believe the fire was arson They were deliberately provoked.
The governor of Valparaiso province, Rodrigo Muntaga, told reporters that authorities had determined that a large fire had started in four different locations, within a few meters of each other, around 2pm on Friday.
“Does it seem to me that it might be spontaneous, natural? No.”He said, the National Forest Department staff deliberately put out the fire a day earlier. “That's why I'm saying today there's a clear motive here, and we hope the authorities can find those responsible.”
Two men were arrested on Sunday on suspicion of trying to set the fire near the Botanical Gardens, but were later released after police said they did not have enough evidence. Officials said night curfew was being observed as the fire was recovering.
High temperatures and dry conditions before the fires in Chile created dangerous conditions. A cyclical climate phenomenon known as El Niño has contributed to heat and drought in parts of South America, and global climate change has also raised temperatures.
Because of strong winds on Friday, the fire spread quickly, catching officials by surprise and trapping many who tried to escape from hillside homes. on Monday, Firefighters brought the fire under control.
At the botanical garden, smoke from burned eucalyptus forests still hung in the air, workers cut down fallen trees with chainsaws and helicopters flew overhead carrying large buckets of water. Perano was clearly upset and called the burnt plantations behind him “a treasure for Chileans”. But he was sure the forest would grow back.
“The native plants will bloom again, but we need rain and we won't get it until May,” he said. He said some exotic species also survived the inferno, such as a historic 150-year-old banyan tree in Lahaina, Hawaii, which began to sprout leaves weeks after wildfires destroyed much of the city.
A few surviving plants It includes some almost extinct trees Sobora Toromiro, created from plants that survived the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, Japan, as well as Ginkgo biloba trees in the park's “Peace Park.”
“They had the strength to develop after Hiroshima,” he said in a televised interview on Monday. “Now if they conquer this stage their strength will be doubled because the fire has passed through them. The trees and what they represent will be twice as strong.
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