Chile Wildfire Litters Questions In The Ash Of Burned-Out Homes

In Chile, a fire that started in the hills above Valparaiso continues to burn. The blaze has killed 15 people and destroyed 2,500 homes in the area that surrounds Valparaiso. Reporter Alexandra Hall looks at some of those affected.

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In Chile, people are now returning to a historic port city that was ravaged by wildfires this month. The flames in Valparaiso leapt from hilltop to densely populated hilltop. It took two weeks to contain it, and 15 people died. The president has vowed to rebuild the city.

But as Alexandra Hall reports, thousands of people now live in tents amidst the charred remains of their homes.

ALEXANDRA HALL, BYLINE: Valparaiso is known for its colorful, ramshackle houses, built one on top of another, covering a series of hills that hug the coast – like a dilapidated San Francisco. It's a UNESCO World Heritage site and the destination of artists and world travelers. But up above the hip coffee shops and expensive bed and breakfasts, there's another side of the port town that tourists often don't see.

MARGARITA GATILLON: (Foreign language spoken)

HALL: This is Margarita Gatillon. She's talking about the tents - all of the tents that have replaced her neighbors' houses. Driving by, they're hard to miss: residents sleeping in campsites underneath the frames of what used to be their homes. Margarita's house, however, is the last house standing at the top of the hill.

GATILLON: (Through Translator) Because the direction of the wind changed, my house was saved. Now it looks like it's in the middle of the desert. You see complete devastation, and then my house in the middle.

HALL: Margarita was home alone with her children, planning a birthday party for her soon-to-be 10-year-old son, Israel. When she looked out the window, the fire was already close. Neighbors were running outside, trying to extinguish the flames. But there was a problem.

GATILLON: (Through Translator) We don't have drinking water, nor sewage, or anything. The little water that we did have we used to wet the roof, the walls, but it wasn't that much.

HALL: The thing is that Margarita lives in a neighborhood only partially recognized by the city municipality. So there's no plumbing or running water.

GATILLON: (Through Translator) For a long time, the only water we have we get from drums and buckets. There's a truck that comes from the municipality and fills them up.

HALL: In a rare stroke of good fortune, the tank had just been filled two days before. Others weren't so lucky. Valparaiso is filled with illegal settlements or what the government refers to as irregular housing. Arturo Orellana is professor of Architecture and Urban Development at Chile's Catholic University. He says that if appropriate infrastructure had been in place, this could have been avoided.

ARTURO ORELLANA: (Through Translator) Because if we have people that need housing, then we also have to supply them with sanitation stations, basic services, drinking water, and sewage.

HALL: Since the fire, Chile's government has come under heated criticism for allowing Valparaiso to expand unregulated for so long. The target of that criticism: President Michele Bachelet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "CHILE DE TODOS")

HALL: Bachelet ran for re-election last November and won under the campaign slogan, Chile de todos - Chile for all or for everyone - a reference to the country's status as one of the wealthiest in Latin America, but also one of the most unequal. Now, just one month into her presidency, after an 8.2 magnitude earthquake and the biggest urban fire in the history of the country, Chileans are waiting for the support they were promised.

Back in her home, breastfeeding her infant son by candle light, Margarita is asked what she would say if she could speak with President Bachelet.

GATILLON: (Foreign language spoken)

HALL: She says that she wishes they would open their eyes, that everyone, not just the president, would climb the hill and face their reality. For NPR, I'm Alexandra Hall in Valparaiso, Chile.

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