Chile wildfires leave smouldering tensions over role of forestry industry

The smoke has almost cleared, the blazes that raged over half a million hectares of forests, bush and grassland mostly extinguished, but the air is still thick with recriminations against Chile’s eucalyptus and pine plantation owners who are accused of putting profits before safety.

Following the worst fires in the country’s history, activists are asking whether the unregulated expansion of the forestry industry under the dictator Augusto Pinochet will lead to more problems in a future that is likely to be hotter and drier as a result of climate change.

Eleven people were killed and close to 1,600 dwellings were lost to the fires which erupted in January, along with hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest and farmland.

Fire chiefs said that multiple factors caused the blazes, but environmentalists say the toll was higher than it should have been because plantations had expanded to the edge of communities and companies had failed to insert firebreaks.

“We’ve been warning the forestry sector for the last eight years about the growing threats; and these plantations are never subjected to environmental risk assessments – they’re completely unregulated,” said Sara Larraín, former presidential candidate and director of the environmental NGO Chile Sustentable.

The US Forest Service deems eucalyptus plantations “highly flammable” and recommends that they should always be separated from human settlements by firebreaks. With respect to Monterey pine – the most common species planted in Chile – the same body states that “fire is a particular hazard to young, thin-barked trees and can be disastrous in dense plantations where persistent lower limbs become festooned with dead needles, resulting in an ideal situation for crowning fires.”

In Chile, however, many plantations border villages, towns and even cities.

And this summer’s fires are not the first time that such proximity has caused problems. A devastating 2014 fire in Valparaíso – which destroyed 2,400 homes and killed 15 people – began on a farm and spread through a eucalyptus plantation to the outer suburbs of the city.

Activists say that the seeds of the problem were sown decades ago, when Chile’s forestry industry was established in the…