CLOSED: Torres del Paine National Park in Chile

Into the Fire. Photo by Claudia Saunders.

Because of a wildfire that began last Tuesday, the Oficina Nacional de Emergencia (Onemi) has closed Parque Nacional Torres del Paine until further notice.

 

As of this morning, the fire has consumed up to 5,700 hectares (14,085 acres) of land in the western sector of the park. Rugged terrain and strong winds (up to 95 kilometers / 59 miles per hour) are hampering efforts to bring it under control. In a press conference yesterday, Rodrigo Hinzpeter of the Ministro del Interior y Seguridad Pública stated, “We are confronted with an extremely dangerous and complex fire; in the zone, we have very adverse climatic conditions today and the forecast indicates the weather will be adverse tomorrow. Furthermore, the topography of the place makes it difficult for the brigades to fight the fire, along with highly combustible vegetation.”

 

The weather forecast calls for high winds again today (Friday), with a chance of showers Friday afternoon and Saturday morning.

 

On the ground are over 150 firefighters from the national forest service Conaf, the Chilean military and Argentina. Three helicopters are also being employed. Private entities, like Fantástico Sur, which operates several refuges in the park, are asking for volunteers with experience fighting forest fires in mountainous terrain to help preserve their properties. Interested individuals should contact Katherine MacCormick at 61-614184.

 

According to La Prensa Austral, a foreign tourist is suspected of starting the fire. This is the third time in less than a decade that the 227,298-hectare (561,665-acre) park has been hit by a man-made forest fire. In 2005, about 15,000 hectares (37,065 acres) were destroyed and another 10 square meters (108 square feet) were burnt in February 2011. In both cases, foreign trekkers were responsible.

 

Unconfirmed reports say that the fire, which began near the Río Olguín, between Glaciar Gray and Pehoé, has spread past the Valle del Francés and Salto Grande. The wharf in Paine Grande is destroyed. Hotel Explora and el Hotel Grey are threatened. Approximately 1,000 people have been evacuated from the park. According to another source, the Cuernos and Torres sectors have not been evacuated yet. Evacuations are expected to continue this morning. Thus far, no injuries or deaths have occurred.

 

News of the extent of the fire remain sketchy. Visitors to the reserve are advised to keep up on the news with the above agencies, Sernatur, Prensa Austral or Radio Polar. Another excellent source is erratic rock in Puerto Natales. Bill Penhollow, owner of erratic rock, recommends tourists come back in a week.

 

Stay tuned to V!VA’s blog and facebook page for more developments.

 

Residents of Puerto Natales will be having a demonstration Friday afternoon at 1:30 p.m. at the Plaza de Armas, to call on the government to bring in more reinforcements to combat the blaze. The environmental groups Frente Defensa Ecologico Austral and Frente Defensa Ecológico Austral II in Punta Arenas will have a candlelight rally Friday evening (6:30 p.m. Colón and Bories streets, Punta Arenas). Another demonstration is planned at La Moneda at 6 p.m., in the nation’s capital, Santiago.

 

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