Community project saves homes from Chile wildfires

By Thomson Reuters Feb 16, 2024 | 1:00 PM

VINA DEL MAR, Chile (Reuters) – Scorched earth surrounds the 70 houses of the Villa Botania neighborhood, on the outskirts of Chile’s coastal town of Vina del Mar.

Wildfires earlier this month that swept through parts of Vina del Mar and Valparaiso killed at least 132 people, marking the South American nation’s worst disaster since 2010.

However, the Villa Botania neighborhood, which sits high on a hill surrounded by brush, was unaffected.

Residents and officials say Villa Botania was saved due to a community project meant to reduce damages caused by wildfires.

Before the flames crept close, the community cut back vegetation, pruned foliage and cleared trash surrounding the hilltop homes. They also brought in water to keep soil wet, and a wall and trench around the area kept the blaze from coming closer.

Residents “are determined to do whatever they have to do” to protect their homes, said Leonardo Moder, the regional head of Chile’s national forest authority Conaf. “Their efforts worked, because the fire did not affect their houses.”

Villa Botania is one of 27 communities involved in a Conaf fire safety program that aims to expand, Moder said. “We have to keep replicating it,” he said.

Due to the devastation elsewhere, many other neighborhoods have “woken up” to the need to take measures to protect themselves from wildfires, Moder added.

“Given the destruction that occurred, they have to prepare for it,” he said.

(Reporting by Nicolas Cortes and Jorge Vega for Reuters TV; Additional reporting by Rodrigo Garrigo; Writing by Kylie Madry; Editing by Bill Berkrot)