El Gran Incendio de Valparaíso, Chile

Just a few short weeks after an earthquake hit northern Chile, another tragedy struck the country. In the late afternoon of April 12th, a giant fire broke out in the back hills of Valparaiso, the beautiful coastal city I’m studying abroad in. With thousands of firefighters on the job and a dozen helicopters releasing water from above, this fire seemed well-attended to. But the blazes proved near impossible to control given the dry climate and strong winds – winds that propelled the fire down the hills as night fell. Throughout the course of my night, I heard “100 casas destruidas”… then “200 casas” … “500”… “1000”.

People around me called their loved ones or watched as their worlds literally went up in flames. By morning, the blaze had already engulfed 4 fully-populated hills and the number of destroyed homes was higher than anticipated. If that weren’t bad enough, new fires sprang up the next evening (April 13th) and rendered more families homeless. Estimates range as high as 3000 homes being reduced to ashes.

This fire ended up swallowing up to 1/2 of Valparaiso. Although a more realistic estimate would be approximately 25%.chile3

It left more than 2000 homes torched to the ground.
It forced at least 10,000 people to evacuate.

The president of Chile says this is the worst fire in Valparaiso’s history.

Unlike firefighters in the United States, the thousands of firefighters that fought this blaze were UNPAID volunteers. (The system in Chile actually entails that the men pay a fee for the training, and usually a monthly or yearly fee to be a member!) My friend José Godoy Meza, a 22-year-old firefighter, worked 30 hours straight with no sleep and one meal break.

So many people are left with nothing. Nothing! Their homes and cars are destroyed, their children are in need of emotional support and their animals need to be rescued or nursed back to health.

That said,any efforts you can make to help, however far away you may be, it would all be a really big help.I personally spent the equivalent of $ 26 USD and donated all of this: 16 rolls of toilet paper, 4 bags of pasta, 3 bags of detergent, 200 pantiliners, 14 large diapers and 24 medium diapers.

If you have anything to give, this city thanks you for your kindness. It is always a safe bet to go online and donate to the Red Cross. I live down the street from one of them and they had a yard full of donations during those first few days.

Although so many donations of clothes and food have been made, I’m not sure how much has actually reached the victims, since, past the point of collection, efforts have been largely disorganized. There are bags of donations, especially clothing, clustered on sidewalks all over the city, but the majority will have to be trashed for public health reasons. Two of the affected hills are getting more attention from television crews and volunteer organizations, leaving the other hills to fend for themselves.

Many of the now-homeless people have taken to camping out on their properties in tents. During the day they work (alongside volunteers) to clear the rubble away and level the land in order to start building new homes from scratch.

As classes were suspended all of last week, there was unbelievable human energy pumping through Valparaiso.The citizens truly came together in a powerful and impressive way. The concern, organizational skills, and overall power of the 20-somethings in this city is especially striking. Hoards of students, internationals included, organized themselves via social media. Everywhere you turned, you’d see young men and women donning face masks and toting shovels.

Universities organized their gyms into collection zones and students spent their days swarming like ants, helping in any capacity they could. With so many peers eager to help, there is an undeniable social pressure to follow suit. Painted words of strength cover cars and buses: “FUERZA VALPO”. In a way I’ve never seen in North America, these people worked together to help those in need. In fact, for the first few days, there was such an excess of helping hands that many volunteers were turned away.

The Chilean youth put a lot of importance on having their voices heard. In fact, the student movement at the University of Santa Maria was so strong that after putting it to a vote, all classes for the rest of the week were put on hold. While colleges in the USA have their student governments, I can’t imagine my peers taking such initiative or effecting change of that magnitude.

Unfortunately, it is truly “back to business as usual” for many people. Last week there was an overabundance of volunteers, but these days I hear reports of a shortage of helpers and supplies.

Help the city — we desperately need it– we can’t let the helpful energy fizzle out! #FuerzaChile#FuerzaVALPO