Chile under Fire

In a strong show of solidarity, Chilean soldiers and civilians, as well as members from several partner nations, responded immediately, using all their capabilities to fight the wildfires.
Augusto Scarella Arce/Diálogo | 2 February 2017

Rapid Response

The Chilean military works tirelessly to assist the population amidst the catastrophe affecting the country. (Photo: Augusto Scarella).

Chile has been ravaged by a series of wildfires since January 11th, with 142 disasters declared in different regions of the country’s center and south to date. Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, responded by issuing decrees declaring several states of emergency, which under the country’s constitution set in motion a set of measures aimed at overcoming the public disaster besetting a large swath of the country.

From the beginning of this emergency, General Arturo Merino Núñez, director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (EMCO, per its Spanish acronym), has continuously deployed units from the Emergency Operations Center to maintain precise control and coordination of the defensive measures employed to combat the wildfires. “This effort by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with the direct consultation of the Ministry of Defense, will remain available 24 hours a day for as long as needed,” Gen. Merino said.

National response

More than 8,000 members of the Armed Forces are providing emergency assistance, having fought 77 wildfires to date. Of the total wildfires, covering nearly 300,000 hectares, 51 have been brought under control and 14 have been extinguished. Almost 300 vehicles, including all types of tanker and transport equipment, have been flown to the affected areas by the Chilean Air Force. Additionally, 25 planes have been brought in by the Chilean Armed Forces, which together with 18 other government organizations are working to assist members of the National Forestry Service (CONAF, per its Spanish acronym) brigades and firefighters.

The national defense is also fighting fires directly through the Army Forest Fire Reinforcement Brigades, with units that provide nationwide coverage and that enjoy autonomy in deployment and logistics.

Minister of Defense José Antonio Gómez made another visit to the affected areas on January 25th, accompanied by Rear Admiral Jorge Rodriguez Urria, EMCO’s chief of Operations and Joint Administration, to coordinate the military's actions on the ground. The minister was clear and quite specific about the aid from military institutions: “They will work night and day to restore conditions that will allow rebuilding from the destruction caused by a fire of an intensity never before seen in this country.”

Partner nations step in with support

Director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Arturo Merino Núñez, together with Paulina Vodanovic, Under Secretary of the Armed Forces of Chile, is in constant meetings with the National Emergency Center to coordinate military assistance. (Photo: Augusto Scarella).

On January 26th, authorities met at the airport with a group of 29 Colombian brigade members who voluntarily came to help.

The United States also responded very rapidly to the difficult situation Chileans are experiencing. The U.S. Agency for International Development, through its Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA) donated $100 million to the non-governmental organization Caritas Chile for the local acquisition and delivery of firefighting equipment, such as power saws and weather monitoring tools requested by the Chilean National Forestry Service.

“A team from the U.S. Forestry Service and USAID/OFDA is being deployed in Chile. It is made up of emergency personnel and staff with technical expertise in fighting forest fires,” said Nicole Gallagher, spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Chile.

On January 27th and 28th, fire brigade members from Mexico also arrived. There is a total of 609 firefighters from Argentina, Colombia, the United States, Panama, Peru, and Mexico, among other countries, fighting the flames with their Chilean counterparts.

For its part, on January 29th, Brazil’s Air Force (FAB, per its Portuguese acronym) deployed two C-130 aircraft to support Chile in combatting the forest fires. Operated by the First Troop Transport Group, the aircraft arrived in Chile with 28 service members on board.

“The crew follows the guidelines provided by ONEMI [Chilean Ministry of Interior’s National Office for Emergency], and the CONAF [National Forestry Corporation], who are responsible for coordinating the international aid, and it will be distributed to the place they will operate from,” explained FAB Colonel Paulo Cesar Andari, military attaché for the Brazilian Air Force in Chile, according to information from FAB.

Likewise, the Peruvian Air Force transported 55 firefighters from the Civil Defense Institute and a 212 Bell helicopter aboard an L-100-20 Hercules and a C-27J Spartan aircraft from the Eighth Air Group, to help Chile fight the forest fires, according to information from defense news website Defensa.com.

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