by Staff Writers
Santiago (AFP) Jan 5, 2012
Six Chilean firefighters died Thursday and four were injured tackling one of a series of wildfires that President Sebastian Pinera says were intentionally lit by criminals.
An unusually hot and dry early summer and high winds have seen forest fires ravage large areas of central and southern Chile, burning down scores of homes and destroying some 50,000 hectares (123,000 acres) of woodland and brush.
"We have reliable information that makes us presume there is criminal intent behind these fires," Pinera said. "I believe that we ought to combat not only the fires, but also the criminals behind the fires."
The president, who pledged his government would do everything possible to find those responsible, evoked anti-terror laws that could allow for tougher punishments.
The 10 firefighters, private contractors for forestry company Mininco, were trapped by a blaze raging in a mountainside forest in the Araucania region. A helicopter succeeded in pulling the four injured to safety.
"The fire suddenly surrounded them because of the wind, they drew closer together, one against another, and saw the fire pass above them," local governor Miguel Mellado told Canal 13 television.
"It is most probable that the two survivors were those who were underneath," Mellado said, speaking before Pinera raised the number of survivors to four.
For more than a week firefighting teams have been tackling a series of blazes in Araucania and the neighboring Biobio region, rural areas located some 500 to 700 kilometers (310-435 miles) south of the Chilean capital Santiago.
The only casualty before Thursday was a 75-year-old man who refused to leave his home in the Biobio region.
A five-day inferno in southern Chile's Torres del Paine National Park, a 2,400-square-kilometer (927-square-mile) nature preserve in the Patagonian steppe, was brought under control at the weekend.
An Israeli citizen, Rotem Singer, 23, has denied accidentally starting the huge Torres del Paine fire, which razed some 15,000 hectares of prime parkland, by failing to extinguish a burning roll of toilet paper.
Singer, who faces a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail and a fine of $300, has been released from police custody but ordered not to leave Chile until an investigation is complete.
Pinera has blamed the La Nina weather phenomenon and "global warming" for contributing to drought conditions that helped the fires spread.
Chile brings fires under control as probe expands
However, many of the 20 fires continued burning, particularly in the Bio Bio region about 500 kilometers south of Santiago.
Firefighters "are in a process of continuing to suffocate" the remaining fires, Rene Garrido, fire chief of the Bio Bio region's Quillon commune, told local media.
One of the Bio Bio fires killed a 75-year-old man who refused to evacuate his home.
Garrido said tanker airplanes and helicopters that dropped water on the flames helped bring the fires under control.
After the flames were extinguished, firefighters returned to the areas where the fires were most intense to prevent further flare-ups from the current hot weather, drought and high winds.
About 24,800 hectares (62,000 acres) were destroyed in the Bio Bio region, 160 homes burned and 600 people displaced.
In the Maule region, fires that destroyed 6,650 hectares (16,512 acres), burned 30 homes and affected 200 families, also are under control, according to Carlos Bernal, the regional director of Chile's National Emergency Office (Onemi).
Firefighters reported that most outbreaks in the national park Torres del Paine, where the fires started a week ago, were no longer spreading. The fires consumed 14,504 hectares.
The park, which is visited every year by thousands of tourists, was partially reopened to the public Wednesday.
The suspicious nature of the Bio Bio fires is prompting a government investigation, led by prosecutor Julio Contardo.
Eight fires started simultaneously near a plant that is one of the world's largest producers of cellulose. The plant was severely damaged by flames.
Meanwhile, police have arrested a man accused of starting a fire that destroyed nearly 18 acres in the town of Tome.
The man confessed to igniting the flames by mishandling fireworks during New Year celebrations, according to local media reports.
An Israeli citizen, Rotem Singer, 23, is charged with starting the fire in the Torres del Paine park. He is accused of negligently trying to extinguish a burning roll of toilet paper, which he denies.
He was released from police custody but ordered not to leave Chile until an investigation is complete. He faces a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail and a fine of $300.
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera blamed the La Nina weather phenomenon and "global warming" for contributing to drought conditions that helped the fires spread.
Forest and Wild Fires - News, Science and Technology
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New fire outbreak kills one in Chile
Santiago (AFP) Jan 2, 2012
A new forest fire has claimed one life in southern Chile just hours after firefighters tamed a massive blaze that consumed 13,000 hectares (32,000 acres) in Patagonia, officials said Monday. The new inferno already has consumed some 8,000 hectares in the commune of Quillon in southern Chile's Biobio region, some 500 kilometers (310 miles) south of Santiago, according to federal disaster offi ... read more
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