Six firefighters were killed and two were seriously burned while fighting a forest fire in the Araucania region in Chile; another worker is still missing. Authorities believe arson is involved.
The wildfire, which has consumed more than a thousand hectares, began in the early hours of Wednesday, January 4. The accident occurred on Thursday 5 at about 14:00 hours. The focus of the fire was in a ravine called “Casa de Piedra” (Stone House) in Carahue. “Ten members of the "Santa Julia-Lumaco" Forest Firefighters Brigade were in an area of difficult access; suddenly the wind changed and brought the fire back to them from different points." explained Gerardo Cerda, Manager of "Forestal Cerda".
According to the National Emergency Office (ONEMI), gusty winds of 60 kilometers/hr in different directions would have surprised the firefighters. The flames would have closed their path, forcing them to retreat. Firefighter Gonzalo Contreras, 22, who was admitted to the German Clinic of Temuco witnessed the situation and said: "They made a circle, recognized that they were surrounded and could not do much except trying to escape, every man for himself, for a chance to survive." Contreras escaped because he found a stream and dived in, hoping the fire to pass over him. "He dived into the stream and held his breath as long as he could” said Gerardo Cerda to Latercera.com (in Spanish).
Contreras has burns in 30% of his body. A second injured firefighter, Julio Marin, 31, remains in the Temuco Regional Hospital with burns on his limbs.
Firefighters battle wildfires in the Araunanía Region of Chile.(Screengrab from EMOL).
Government and Police authorities suspect the participation of the “Coordinadora Arauco Malleco (CAM)” in starting the fires. CAM is a Mapuche aboriginal organization fighting for land ownership in the region. The investigation is based on intelligence information that points to leaders of the organization being held in prison, charged with previous arson activities in the area, as drivers of a campaign to burn industrial forest lands during the summer.
CAM representatives had acknowledged that the organization was responsible for recently burning trucks, agricultural machinery and a helicopter that is part of the equipment used to fight forest fires in the region, reports EMOL.
UPDATE (14:00 hrs 6/01/12): Police investigators found this morning the dead body of the missing firefighter that was not accounted for after the forest fire that killed six other people yesterday in the Region of La Araucania, Chile.