Article | Itrend: Santa Olga’s Multidimensional Vulnerability

By: Francisca Yunis Richter, based on the publication “La vulnerabilidad multidimensional de Santa Olga”, content made by Jorge Román for the platform “Connect Resilience” of the Institute for Resilience to Disasters (Itrend), published on April 16, year 2020.

This article develops the main factors that affected Santa Olga in the 2017 fires and its prompt recovery, which is considered an example to follow due to the great leadership of the community and the collaboration of actors from the public and private sectors. Here you can access the full publication: https://conectaresiliencia.cl/la-vulnerabilidad-multidimensional-de-santa-olga/

Published on September 13, 2022

At the beginning of 2017, the regions of central-southern Chile, O’higgins, Maule, and BioBío, were affected by mega-fires, which destroyed more than 546,677 hectares, the fires were so extensive that the smoke could be seen from space and covered the skies of several cities, including the capital. 

(El Centro 2017, El Dínamo 2017, El Mostrador 2017).

The climate crisis, the densification of the urban-rural interface, changes in land use, and the management of the forestry and timber industry, in relation to the management of plantations of exotic species, are the main reasons why wildfires have been increasing in recent decades, both in duration, intensity and severity (Úbeda and Sarricolea 2016, González 2018, González et al 2011). In fact, according to González (2018), the annual area devastated by fires greater than 200 hectares has increased by more than 80% in the last 20 years. 

Currently, the 2017 fire season is considered one of the worst recorded in the history of Chile (to date). The Maule Region, especially the Constitución commune and its surrounding towns, suffered great losses, including the total destruction of its settlements, for example, Santa Olga. 

According to Allerton et al. (2019), the affected settlements, during the 2017 fire season, were surrounded by forest plantations, which disappeared in the flames. The destruction of these forests affected employment opportunities in the forestry and timber industry, which was the main source of employment for the communities.

In just 4 hours the fires consumed Santa Olga, and practically all its inhabitants lost their homes, however only one died. 

The response from the authorities and the private sector was quick: Santa Olga and the other towns would be rebuilt, but not like before. Prior to the fire, the houses in Santa Olga were officially considered rural areas and had partial or no access to basic services, with a significant percentage of people occupying land irregularly. The aim of the reconstruction was to give the new homes all the urban facilities that are currently required and regularize the ownership of the land (Roman, 2020).

Source: Rodrigo Garrido, Reuters (2017).
Source: Santa Olga, January 26. Javier Torres, Aton Chile (2017)

According to Allerton et al. (2019), the combat against wildfires has become increasingly complex, since there are several environmental and climatic conditions, which directly affect temperatures, soil moisture, which affects the growth of vegetation, and exposure to erosion, and landslides. Likewise, climate change makes it difficult to manage forest fires, since it affects existing experience and knowledge, making the capacity to manage and respond to disasters insufficient. 

The Rebirth

Santa Olga was developed in the middle of the forest plantations of Arauco industry, however, the traditional system of industrial settlements was not followed, where the industry provides lodging and basic services to the workers, that is why Santa Olga has developed autonomously and parallel to Arauco, where job opportunities were highly dependent on the sawmill in the same locality (Román, 2020). 

In 2017, Santa Olga had around 5.000 residents, although only a few had domain titles recognized by the State. The rest lived in informal or almost informal conditions. Added to this was the fact that, officially, Santa Olga was a rural zone, which explained the lack of paved streets and sidewalks, as well as partial access to drinking water, sanitation services, and electricity (Román, 2020). Due to this, the State, together with private organizations and NGOs, decided to rebuild Santa Olga from its infrastructure and basic services, to housing, including new educational establishments, medical services, a checkpoint and fire station, public spaces, paving of the streets, and a bus terminal.

The participation of the community was essential to identify the victims, map the town, plan the buildings and rebuild. The process was quick and efficient in the case of Santa Olga due to several factors; first, the fact that the town was considered a rural area, so services were accessible to only a part of its inhabitants. This situation left room for substantial improvements in the quality of life. Second, the fire left practically no debris, which reduced the time for cleaning the area to practically zero and repair of damaged infrastructure.Third, the reconstruction could start much earlier because it was hardly necessary to repair drinking water and sewage systems, power lines and streets. Finally, as there was no need to respect a regulatory plan or an original architectural unit, Santa Olga presented the opportunity to design and plan a community from scratch and side by side with its inhabitants, which allowed to create the town and in which they wanted to live (Román, 2020).

Source: Three years after the Santa Olga fire, the town is almost rebuilt. TV Maule (2020)

Multidimensional Vulnerability

The vulnerability of communities like Santa Olga must be approached in multiple ways: there is vulnerability due to socioeconomic levels, due to the fragility of jobs, and, before reconstruction, due to the precariousness of basic services. But there is also the vulnerability of gender and the constitution of families: women tend to bear the heaviest burden, as they are the ones who, by traditional role, must take care of children, the elderly, and people with disabilities (Allerton et al 2019). Part-time jobs, where mainly women work, are the first to be eliminated in times of financial stress (Román, 2020).

According to Allerton et al. (2019), cases such as Santa Olga, are essential to recognize the multiplicity of factors of vulnerability to disasters, since to develop a resilient country, it is necessary to understand all the variables that are associated with the vulnerability of a community, such as the inclusion of people in the processes of prevention, mitigation, adaptation and reconstruction (Román, 2020).

References

Allerton C, Cheng P, Dickinson G, Flamenco E, Han Y, Le R, et al. Chile. Disaster Management and Recovery. Urban Planning Studio. Columbia GSAPP, Urban Community and Health Equity Lab; 2019 Primavera p. 55.

Diario El Centro. Curicó marcó preemergencia ambiental a causa de los incendios forestales. Diario El Centro (online). 24 de enero de 2017 (Accessed 04/09/2019); Available at: http://www.diarioelcentro.cl/cronica/curico-marco-preemergencia-ambiental-a-causa-de-los-incendios-forestales

El Dínamo. Antes y después: impactante diferencia en el cielo de Talca en sólo dos horas de incendio. El Dínamo (online). 26 de enero de 2017 (Accessed 04/09/2019); Available at: https://www.eldinamo.cl/ambiente/FOTOS–Antes-y-despues-impactante-diferencia-en-el-cielo-de-Talca-en-solo-dos-horas-de-incendio-20170126-0011.html

El Mostrador Vida. Humo en Santiago: ¿alerta ambiental? El Mostrador (online). 19 de enero de 2017 (Accessed 04/09/2019); Available at: https://www.elmostrador.cl/agenda-pais/vida-en-linea/2017/01/19/humo-en-santiago-alerta-ambiental/

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