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Tragedy, Resilience and a Miracle at Chile’s Burned Botanical Garden

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On Friday afternoon, several hundred people were roaming the idyllic grounds of Chile’s national botanical garden, mostly unaware that, just across some hills and a highway, a raging wildfire was galloping toward them.

The danger quickly became clear. Rangers began racing around the park on motorbikes, shouting for visitors to flee to the exits. But by the time many got there, the fire had already arrived.

“Thick black smoke was billowing above us, so we laid down on the grass just inside the gate,” Alejandro Peirano, the park’s director, recalled Monday morning. “One of my rangers turned to me and said, ‘Director, are we going to die?’”

Elsewhere, three other rangers were trying to rescue a colleague, Patricia Araya, 60, a greenhouse keeper who lived in the park and was caring for her two grandsons and 92-year-old mother. They reached her cabin’s gate, but the fire was closing in. “I could feel the heat searing my back. I realized it was burning chunks of bark falling on me,” Freddy Sánchez, 50, said Monday, standing guard at the park entrance.

“We had to turn around,” he said. “All your body wants is to find a way out of the heat.”

The crowd that huddled on the front lawn survived — a miracle of sorts, given that 98 percent of the nearly 1,000-acre garden was destroyed.

Ms. Araya, her mother and two grandsons did not, becoming four of the 122 confirmed deaths in one of the deadliest wildfire outbreaks in modern history.

On Monday, authorities with cadaver dogs continued the search for bodies across the nearly 40 square miles scorched by Friday’s fast-moving wildfires in Valparaíso province, a popular resort area near Chile’s central coast.

They also took stock of the broader destruction, including some 15,000 homes and one of Chile’s national gems: the 107-year-old National Botanical Garden of Viña del Mar.

The botanical garden, stretching across 1.5 square miles, is one of the world’s largest, and is also a crucial conservation and research center for the region. Over decades, staff have built and studied a diverse garden, with more than 1,000 tree species, including some of the world’s rarest.

Because of Chile’s isolated geography, sandwiched between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, the country is home to many endemic plant species, meaning they do not appear elsewhere in the wild.

The garden was instrumental in the preservation of those species, including many rare cactuses. It has also had medicinal plants, exotic plants from Europe and Asia, a large collection of species from the remote Juan Fernández Islands in the Pacific, and some of the world’s last known Sophora toromiro trees, which are native to Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, but are now extinct in the wild.

“It’s a horrible loss. Years and years of research that lots of people have done in that garden, growing special collections,” said Noelia Alvarez de Roman, the Latin America specialist at Botanic Gardens Conservation International, a global network of botanical gardens.

Mr. Peirano said the park had been damaged by fires in the past, including in 2013 and 2022, with about a quarter of the grounds burned. “We’re used to it. We patrol the most sensitive areas every day, we clean the areas and educate people,” he said.

“But this fire was completely unexpected,” he added. “We’ve never seen anything on this scale.”

Mr. Peirano stressed that the lives lost were far more devastating than the physical damage. Ms. Araya had worked in the park for about 40 years, and this week, she had planned to hold a new marriage ceremony with her longtime partner and then go on a vacation together, Mr. Peirano said in a television interview.

She had already taken Friday off from work, and her grandsons, aged 1 and 9, came to stay with her earlier that day, he said.

Authorities on Monday reiterated that they believed the fires were sparked intentionally.

Rodrigo Mundaca, the governor of Valparaíso province, told reporters that the authorities had determined at least one major fire began about 2 p.m. Friday in four different spots, just a few meters from each other.

“Does it seem to me that this could be spontaneous, natural? No,” he said, adding that national forest workers had put out intentionally set fires a day prior. “Therefore, today, I say there’s a clear intention here and we hope that the authorities can find those responsible.”

Two people were arrested on Sunday on suspicion of attempting to start fires near the botanical garden, but they were later released because the police said they did not have enough evidence. Authorities said they would keep nighttime curfews in place as they continued their investigation and recovery from the fires.

High temperatures and dry conditions ahead of the fires made for dangerous conditions in Chile. The cyclical climate phenomenon known as El Niño has contributed to heat and drought across parts of South America, and global climate change has also broadly pushed temperatures higher.

Strong winds on Friday caused fires to spread quickly, surprising authorities and leaving many people trapped trying to escape hillside settlements. By Monday, firefighters had largely contained the blaze.

At the botanical garden, smoke from the burned eucalyptus forests still hung in the air, while workers carved fallen trees with chain saws and helicopters carrying enormous buckets of water flew overhead. Mr. Peirano was clearly saddened, calling the charred gardens behind him “a treasure for Chileans,” but he also was resolute that the forest would regrow.

“The native plants will flourish again, but we will need rains to come, and we won’t get those until May,” he said. He added that some of the garden’s exotic species also survived the inferno, much like the historic 150-year-old banyan tree in Lahaina, Hawaii, which began sprouting leaves just weeks after a wildfire destroyed much of the city.

Some of the surviving plants included a few of the nearly extinct Sophora toromiro trees from Rapa Nui, as well as Ginkgo biloba trees from the park’s “Garden of Peace,” which is made up of plants that survived the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, Japan.

“They had the strength to sprout after Hiroshima,” he said in a television interview Monday. “Now they will have double the strength if they overcome this stage, because the fire passed through them. The trees and what they represent will be twice as strong.”

Daniel Politi and Lis Moriconi contributed reporting.

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