Development & Education

Chile's city on a hill is devastated as a forest fire rages on

RTR3L0NL.jpg

A forest fire burns in Valparaiso, Chile, northwest of Santiago, April 12, 2014.

Credit:

Cesar Pincheira/Reuters

The fires that began on Saturday, still rage in the city of Valparaiso in Chile. Eyewitnesses have described it as Dante's inferno.

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

So far, at least 12 people have died, while thousands have been evacuated, not knowing if their homes will be there when they return. The exact origin of the fire isn't clear.

"There are different theories as to how it started," says Jonathan Franklin, a reporter for The Guardian, adding that it's a controversial question. "That's because if it was generated in a building, the Chilean firefighters are in charge, but if it began in forests, then it would be the forest fire brigade that's responsible for putting it [out]."

What is clear, though, is that the city's architecture, made it very difficult to respond to this disaster. 

But it's built in a way that makes it very dangerous for residents. For example there are no water hydrants or municipal water connections. In an interview with Chile's 24Horas channel on Sunday, Mayor Jorge Castro called Valparaiso "dangerous."

"We are too vulnerable as a city. We've been builders and architects of our own danger," he said.

Valparaiso is an historic city with colorful houses built on top of hills. The city was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. It's also Chile's second-largest port city and home to the Chilean congress.  According to Franklin, it will take a lot of effort to rebuild Valparaiso.

"The million-dollar question is 'how can you re-create the charm'," he says. "If you do cookie-cutter houses, it will look very plastic."

The challenge will be to preserve the historic aspect of the city and at the same time make it safe to live in. For the moment, the once-picturesque city is a disaster zone.

"You can see scenes of devastation that look like a big bomb went off. Entire hillsides are shredded," Franklin says.