Opinion | Wildfires in Viña del Mar: Christmas Fire

By: Pablo Allard, Dean of the Faculty of Architecture at Universidad del Desarrollo © La Tercera, December 26, 2022. Translated by Francisca Yunis.

The fire that affected nearly 500 families on Christmas Eve in Viña del Mar once again puts the focus on the housing crisis and those irregular settlements located in risk areas.

According to the latest MINVU National Camp Registry 2022, as of October, there were 1,901 registered camps with 71,961 households, of which 37% (35,000 families) are under some threat or at risk due to climate change. Underestimated figures, since they only consider risks recognized in Territorial Planning Instruments, where wildfires in the urban-forest interface are not included. In November, TECHO and CIGIDEN presented a study that revealed that 93% of the camps (62,000 families) are exposed to some type of threat, such as drought, landslides, floods, earthquakes, or tsunamis. They specify that 30.1% of the camps have suffered floods, 17.4% declared having witnessed landslides, and another 15.4% have witnessed wildfires up close.

The most delicate aspect of this information is that if the State knows that there are people living at risk and does not take measures such as informing and educating, early warning and evacuation protocols, monitoring and reducing risks, we are facing an unavoidable ethical, political and constitutional responsibility. 

Recognizing the MINVU Housing Emergency Plan, it is imperative that an extraordinary program be activated in the face of camps at risk, similar to the reconstruction after the earthquake of 2010 (27-F). Cadastre in hand, differentiate structural camps (that are several years old) from recent informal settlements and activate a program to eradicate them, prioritizing those located in high-risk areas such as ravines, under high-voltage power lines, or near forests. Organize the offer of nearby leases and relocate most of the families. As the rent will not be enough, for the rest of the families, the “emergency villages” created for 27F could be replicated. There were 104 villages built between the V and XVII Regions on public or private land close to the camps of origin, with emergency housing but with basic services and social support, under the commitment that definitive solutions would be delivered and the villages dismantled or established. Some will criticize this measure as possible “refugee camps,” but it was effective for more than 4,300 families who lost all in 27F, and in 4 years they obtained a definitive solution on safe ground.

A study that we did at the “Center for Innovation in Cities” of the UDD, with the collaboration of Constanza González and Francisco Toro, comparing the reconstruction processes of Valparaíso (2014) and Santa Olga (2017) revealed that the contexts of informal settlements increased vulnerability and exposure to wildfires and made response activities more difficult. Despite the success of these processes, we identified five critical aspects: (1) the lack of preliminary information on wildfires; (2) the underdevelopment of the multiscale approach; (3) weak multidisciplinary approaches and community participation; (4) the need to establish the level of risk tolerance to facilitate decision-making on rehabilitation, reconstruction or relocation strategies; and (5) the lack of continuity of maintenance in recovery processes.

Source: La Tercera: “Tsunami of fire in Viña: the hours of terror” December 23, 2022.
Source: Photograph by Javier Torres, “An aerial view of one of the areas affected by the Viña del Mar fire” December 23, 2022.

Nothing will bring back the lives, property and dreams devastated by the Christmas fire, but if we want to minimize these types of tragedies, we must act even faster with those communities exposed to high risk and learn from the lessons of previous disasters.

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