By Matías Ristenpart
VALPARAISO, Chile (Inzuna) – Paulina Moreno stands guard on a fenced, but empty plot of land, her eyes lost in the morning haze of the austral fall.
The land, where the house she shared with her mother and brother used to stand, is now black, barren, smoking. A potent stench to mud and ashes floats in the air. On Saturday, April 12, 2014, a massive wall of fire engulfed her home and slowly consumed the wooden-framed structure burning it to the ground.
Moreno is a survivor of the Valparaíso fires.
“Streets were hell – Literally,” she remembers. “I could feel the air burning. We could not rescue anything from our homes, everything happened so quickly.”
She now sits on a wooden stool, immune to the smell, just looking out in the morning air, as if hoping to see her future.
“I now have to guard the land [where my home once stood],” she said. “People come in the middle of the night to steal the copper pipes that served our home. That’s the only thing we have left.”
Moreno and her relatives are part of the approximated 12,500 people who lost their homes because of the inferno, which burned for three consecutive days on the hills of this Pacific port city, 75 miles (120 km) east of Chile’s capital of Santiago. Government estimates 15 people died and 2,900 houses were destroyed by the fire, which consumed an approximate 965 hectares of land.
She praises the rapid action of the government, which together with NGO’s and citizen organizations staged a massive relief operation for those affected.
University students, the military, civic relief organizations and everyday citizens have helped remove debris, building tents and shelters, cooking, providing first aid or collecting clothing and foodstuffs for the affected that currently live in one of the 9 camps set up by authorities around the city.
“Our main goal has been to solve, in an expedited fashion, the needs of those affected,” said Gisela Escobar, 29, a student who works for local NGO Colectivo Socio Jurídico Popular (Socio-Judicial Popular Collective), a project by the Universidad de Valparaíso’s School of Law which provides free legal help to those in need. “Our work has focused in helping them re-issue the titles for their homes and lands, since most of them were burned in the fire.”
The government and the Armed Forces have concentrated their efforts in the reconstruction of the city, starting by the removal of debris and trash. According to Andrés Silva, who was appointed by President Michelle Bachelet to oversee the government’s response, as of April 26 more than 11,000 tons of trash and debris has been removed, and 14,000 boxes with food, clothes, personal hygiene products and bedding have been distributed to all the shelters.
“We are working together with the Military [Engineer] Corps to clean the rivers and brooks of debris and to prepare for the reconstruction,” he said to local media.
But the aid has yet to reach all the affected.
“The relief effort is concentrated in the shelters,” said Isabel González, a resident of El Litre who also lost her home to the flames. “We want to get our emergency homes as soon as possible, but so far [the government] requests for all these paperwork and we simply don’t have it, we lost it in the fire.”
González and her daughters are now staying at a shelter in the Juan Bosco neighborhood, but they are desperate to leave. “There are people sick with hepatitis, with lice, with scabies,” she said. “We need our emergency housing soon.”
Moreno also stays at the shelter, but sometimes she sleeps at the ruins of her home, bracing the cold temperatures. She does not mind – She knows it is necessary.
“Burglars come always at night,” she said, “between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. I have to be here. I have to save what I have left. I have to save what is mine.”
To this date, the government continues to investigate the causes of the fire.
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