Disasters & Accidents

Spanish, Mexican firefighters battle wildfires in Chile

By Adriana Thomassa

Concepcion, Chile, Feb 7 (EFE).- Spanish and Mexican firefighters sent to the aid of Chilean counterparts battling wildfires blamed for 26 deaths deployed Tuesday in the central region of Biobio, 500 km (310 mi) south of Santiago.

Members of Spain’s Military Unit for Emergencies (UME) were directed to Yumbel, some 67 km from Concepcion, the regional capital and center of Chile’s third-most-populous metropolitan area.

Yumbel is near Santa Juana, scene of 12 fatalities and the “ground zero” of the disaster.

Amid high winds and humidity levels around 30 percent, crews have struggle to bring under control the flames sweeping across the densely wooded foothills of the Andes.

“We’re not heading into the unknown. We have already been briefed by the authorities of CONAF (Chile’s forest service). We have exchanged impressions regarding our present capacities so they are aware of our limitations,” the head of the Spanish contingent, Lt. Col. Carlos Javier Martin Traverso, told EFE.

“We won’t be able to work in the same conditions that we would work in Spain because we haven’t been able to bring our own vehicles,” he said.

“We’re going to work in a very light configuration, with manual equipment,” such as chainsaws and axes, the air force officer said.

Around 150 Mexican firefighters hit the ground Tuesday in a fire zone including parts of Biobio and the neighboring region of Ñuble.

“Another 150 will arrive tomorrow,” the head of the Mexican mission, Gen. Juan Bravo Velasquez, said, while Mexico’s ambassador to Chile, Alicia Barcenas, stressed the high level of training and experience of her country’s firefighters.

“I believe this is very important assistance that demonstrates, I would say, the solidarity of Mexico with sister nations,” she told EFE.

The fires, which broke out last week, have been concentrated in an area of intensive farming and forestry extending from 400 km to 700 km south of the capital, but the Interior Ministry extended the alert Tuesday to the Metropolitana region, which includes Santiago.

Authorities fear the spread of the heat wave that brought temperatures approaching 40 C (104 F) to south and central Chile will increase the fire danger.

The labor minister, Giorgio Boccardo, said that the current crisis is exposing Chile’s continued reliance on volunteer firefighters.

In comments to Radio Biobio, he warned that businesses who order the volunteer firefighters on their staffs to return to work will face fines.

“We want to be clear: the Labor Code guarantees the firefighters’ right to be absent from their workplaces for as long as the emergencies last. There is no maximum period,” he said. EFE at/dr

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