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Torres del Paine on fire (update)

Update, 1/02/2012 - Unlike the above photo shot by Francisco Negroni during better times, the smoke has not yet cleared in Torres del Paine National Park. But government officials say the fire begun last Tuesday evening has been contained" target="_blank">">contained. The latest official figures show 12,785 hectares, more than 31.000 acres, has been affected by the fire. Though this is just a small part of the 240,000-hectares that encompass Torres del Paine, the area in question is unfortunately some of the most touristic areas of the park, along the famed backpacker trail known as the "W," and an ecosystem which contained the most diversity of plants in the park.

There is much debate over who is responsible for the fire. An Israeli tourist has admitted to burning some of his waste before leaving a campsite near to where the fire is believed to have originated, but denies" target="_blank">">denies that it could have sparked the blaze. If he is proven guilty, he deserves to be punished with the full weight of Chilean law, but it should be done so free of insults from an angry mob. Others" target="_blank">">Others claim Conaf (Chile's national park service) and its park guards were also slow in response to the fire. What is clear, however, is that the park guards which manage Torres del Paine are" target="_blank">">are undermanned and lacking in capacity to deal with emergencies on this scale. Now, under pressure from the local tourism industry in Magallanes, Chile President Sebastian Pinera has already declared that portions of the park will re-open as soon as this Wednesday. Such a move is not prudent, and one symptom of the underlying problem. First, the fire must be quelled completely.
This is the 43rd tourist-related fire in Torres del Paine over the past three decades, and follows two other tourist-initiated large-scale fires in" target="_blank">">in 1985 and 2005. We are hopeful that lessons will be learned this time, both by the government and the public-at-large. Tourism at Torres del Paine needs to be put in balance with the long-term protection of the natural ecosystems inside the crown jewel of Chile's park system. 
We are told that volunteers for the recovery of Torres del Paine may now sign up. Send your name, age, profession, city and dates available to The program, whose start date is not yet set, is to be organized by Conaf and local travel operators.

Update, 12/31/2011 -  The latest official reports state the damage has increased to more than 11,000" target="_blank">">1,000 hectares, or more than 27,000 acres. The good news is there has been some rain in the region, and today the number of firefighters tackling the blaze will double, from 237 to more than 550. Four helicopters will be deployed today, launching water to help quash the flames.
Authorities have announced that Torres del Paine National Park, which draws more than 100,000 visitors per year, will be closed for January. The US" target="_blank">">US government is also warning its citizens not to travel to the zone for the forseeable future, but local hoteliers stress that the dangers are confined to the park and there is still quite a lot to do outside of the park. 

High winds have exacerbated the wildfire, which for ecologists is engulfing in particular an important threshold in the region's ecosystem--the transition from evergreen to deciduous forest. 

"It is very unfortunate because this is precisely where there is the most diversity of plants in the area," said Osvaldo Vidal, a Chilean forest ecologist, in an interview on Friday. Vidal, who has studied the area since 2003, said its also the habitat for many bird species, including the one-and-a-half foot tall Magellanic woodpecker. 

"Fire is not a part of this ecosystem," he said. Vidal has done extensive research on human-caused wildfires in Torres del Paine and says that a lack of resiliency to wildfire means the forest does not grow back. Instead, patches of the Patagonian steppe are left exposed and ripe for the introduction of invasive species. 

"It's a real tragedy," Vidal sighs. "And unfortunately, all the fires in this area are provoked by tourists." 

Before Europeans set foot in Chile, there had not been a fire in this area for nearly 600 years. But in the past three decades, Vidal said there has been 43 tourist-started fires in Torres del Paine, scorching one-eighth of the park's surface area.

There aren't enough forest rangers to patrol the national park, says Vidal. Many tourists are straying from dedicated campgrounds and starting campfires in unauthorized areas. 
Other" target="_blank">">Other fauna threatenened by the fire include a population of 20 huemuls (an endangered deer species endemic to Chile) near the Grey River, as well as guanaco, Andean fox and Geoffrey's cat. 
Chilean authorities say they have identified possible" target="_blank">">possible suspects, which includes one Chilean and several foreign tourists. The penalty for destroying such a large area of valuable parkland: fines or up to 540 days in jail. 
Photo of Magellanic woodpecker courtesy of Claudio Vidal

NASA view of fire in Torres del Paine National Park, Dec. 30, 2011
12/30/2011 - Torres del Paine National Park has been hit by an out-of-control fire. The latest estimates say that more than 8000 hectares, or nearly 20,000 acres, of native forest and valuable ecosystems have been consumed in one of the world's most spectacular national parks. The fire first began on Tuesday, most likely due to negligence from campers, and with winds of at least 110 kilometers per hour (70 miles plus) it has become a rapidly expanding blaze that is far too much for a largely slow and ill-prepared response from Chilean authorities so far. 
Below is a video widely circulating in Chile showing this tremendous fire:
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And here a few images of the enfolding disaster from Patricio Ismael Vidal Bahomondez:

Patagon Journal will keep its readers informed as more information becomes available to us. Send us your photos and comments! Meantime, here are a few links to some articles from other media:
Chile" target="_blank">">Chile forest fire ravages Torres del Paine Park 
Fire" target="_blank">">Fire destroys 1,500 hectares of Patagonia forest 
Evalúan" target="_blank">">Evalúan pedir más ayuda internacional ante descontrol de incendio en Torres del Paine 
Torres" target="_blank">">Torres del Paine: Justicia recibe testimonio para intentar ubicar a posibles autores de incendio 
Onemi" target="_blank">">Onemi confirma que incendio forestal ya ha consumido 3.500 hectáreas en Torres del Paine 
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