Chile has experienced one of the worst fire-related disasters in its history. A series of huge forest fires burned from February 1 to 5, leaving at least 131 people dead – and this number will probably increase as charred bodies are collected and severely injured people die.
But even this is only the tip of the iceberg. There are people with burns, post-traumatic stress, and other mental health disorders. Service interruptions have exacerbated existing diseases, and people have lost their homes and livelihoods. Also, the long-term effects of smoke inhalation are yet to be seen.
This is not a “climate disaster” or even a “natural disaster. ” It is a disaster mainly caused by our decisions and lack of preparation to deal with a more extreme climate hazard. As an academic public health researcher from Chile, I think we can learn lessons from these fires.
So, why did things become so deadly?
The weather, of course, played a role. Meteorological conditions have made Chile very prone to fires this summer, especially in this long-and-thin country’s central region, where it is warm enough for fires yet wet enough for there to be vegetation to burn.
Temperatures were high, above 35°C for more than three days before and during the fires in some places. Conditions were dry on top of a longer-term mega-drought, and relative humidity was low. It was also very windy.
These conditions have likely been influenced by El Niño, on top of human-induced climate change. However, even when fire danger is extremely high, fires can still be prevented from happening, expanding, or being deadly. But to achieve this, other factors are needed in this formula: social factors.
Formula for a (not natural) perfect disaster
My colleague Ilan Kelman has defined disasters as “where the ability of people to cope with a hazard or its impacts by using their own resources is exceeded.” This is exactly what happened in Chile: a deadly combination of an extreme climate hazard and inadequate social preparation.
In addition, regional authorities and the national government have suggested that some fires were ignited intentionally, as there were four simultaneous outbreaks. A state prosecutor claims that fire accelerants paraffin and benzine have been discovered. No arrests have been made.
The most devastating fires occurred in urbanizing areas with significant land-use change and where urban planning regulation has always been inadequate – leading to houses with no building regulation and narrow streets with limited access to emergency services when needed.
There was also limited preparation for the expected hot season, either through seasonal public campaigns for heatwaves and fires or evacuation routes and plans.
Chile’s national early warning system, which sends a mass alert via text, audio and vibration to everyone who uses a compatible mobile device, also faced challenges. The fires affected several antennas and improperly worked, so many people did not receive the message on time. And those messages that were sent only said “evacuate,” so many people did not know where to go. This led to traffic jams and bottlenecks, some of which became engulfed in the middle of the fires.
Climate-related hazards shouldn’t turn disastrous
Climate change means Chile will likely be even more prone to huge fires in the future. However, adequate preparedness and response plans can reduce the human health risks this poses.
Villa Botania, near Quilpué in central Chile, emerged from these fires as an interesting example from which to learn. This little village was surrounded by flames but was almost unaffected.
Aquí Botania, donde viven mis papás. Al lado del jardín botánico. Se quemó todo alrededor, se salvaron en gran manera por el trabajo preventivo de un proyecto con CONAF y Caritas Chile. La única forma de sobrevivir a estos eventos es en comunidad. #IncendiosForestales #QUILPUÉ pic.twitter.com/Ik4RK4B9rp— Car (@carcubillos) February 4, 2024
That’s because residents were prepared. A community-led project managed waste and controlled vegetation and weeds to ensure there was less flammable material when a fire passed. Villa Botania demonstrated that a climate-related hazard does not always end in a massive human disaster; lessons can be learned from this.
Chile recently created a national policy on disaster risk reduction, but it still needs to factor disaster risk and climate change into its planning regulations. This can save lives, as shown by the success of anti-seismic building regulations in this earthquake-prone country since the 1970s.
In a changing climate, we need to prepare the systems that prevent a disaster from occurring in the first place. This is sometimes forgotten, as most resources go to the response phase once it has occurred. However, Chile’s recent fires have again demonstrated that the twin threat of changing climate and inadequate social preparedness poses a serious danger to the health and well-being of many people.