Maule and Santa Olga Will Rise Again
The region of Maule seems to have been placed in the center of long, narrow Chile to absorb the shock of the worst natural disasters that regularly affect the country; earthquakes, tsunamis, and now a mega fire.
And smack in the middle of Maule, sat ill-fated Santa Olga, until January 27, 2017, when it was totally destroyed by one wave of the largest wild fire in the history of Chile.
Driven by an unsettling interest in understanding more of the breadth and depth of this tragic event, we struck off to observe first hand what was happening in this part of Chile once the fires had subsided. We were generally familiar with this region, having visited coastal Maule several times over the past ten years, and especially areas affected by the earthquake and tsunami of 2010.
If you drive westward from San Javier, a town almost three hundred kilometers south of Santiago on the Pan American Highway, and head through the heart of Maule towards the coastal city of Constitución, you enter one of the most forested regions of Chile. Before the fires, this was a picturesque route virtually enveloped in the deep green of pine and grey waves of eucalyptus plantations.
The panorama of seemingly endless tree plantations was broken up occasionally with patches of scrubby native vegetation, remnant forests of native trees such as quillay and ruil, and small and medium sized farmer’s fields supporting sheep, a few cows, a horse or two, crops like wheat and corn, forage for animals, vineyards and occasional olive and fruit trees.
This is not a prosperous part of the country, but it is, in a way, the heart and soul of rural Chile. The Ñuble and Bío Bío regions to the south might dispute this characterization of Maule, but not convincingly.
As we drove down this road, on this clear sunny day, we hoped to find, and if possible visit, the small town of Santa Olga, destroyed two weeks prior in a blistering wave of wild fires that blew through the area virtually unstopped for days.
Almost immediately after leaving the main north-south highway, we began to see the evidence of wild fire. Large swaths of black and brown, where green should be. It wasn’t just here and there evidence of a fire. The impact of fire was clearly so massive that we hardly spoke as we penetrated further and further into this wasteland. There was little traffic, which surprised us, because it was a Sunday and the coastal vacation town of Constitución lay at the western end of this road; there should have been more traffic.
We had seen several trucks and caravans at the rest stops on the Pan American highway that seemed to be heading towards the area with supplies of food, prefabricated houses, water, and bales of hay. But traffic was very light so, while I had expected a problem getting into the area, we were pretty much alone on our drive.
We passed rustic roadside stands where locals normally sell their goods; I was looking for some honey to buy, excellent in this part of Chile, surpassed only by the honey from Ulmo flowers produced further south. But the stands that this time of year usually offer fresh corn, tomatoes, potatoes, garlic, peaches, melons, and honey, were all closed. So were all the small roadside restaurants and stores.
Handwritten signs were everywhere along the road where there was, or had been, a house, expressing simple but desperate messages. “Need Water!” “Fodder For Animals!” “All OK. Gone To Talca!” It was obvious that relief of some sort had been arriving to this area, but it was pretty obvious these folks still needed help with their basic needs. The reality is that even though these victims of the fires are receiving help from friends, relatives, volunteer organizations, and public agencies, they will require sustained assistance especially since the summer harvest of much of their production was upon them when the fires struck. What they had produced and saved for the coming winter season is totally lost. Their needs are great.
When we started out on this trip, I wasn’t sure exactly where Santa Olga was located, and was prepared to have to go off the main San Javier to Constitución road to find it. But that was not necessary. About twenty kilometers from Constitución, as we were coming to the turnoff that goes south to Empedrado, we stopped to talk with a man who was sitting alongside the road, who said his name was Christian. The area on both sides of the road was dotted with the remnants of homes burned to the ground. Some had tents where the inhabitants were living for the moment, and others had already started to rebuild some sort of structure. There was a deafening silence about the whole scene.
We talked awhile with Christian, who was in what appeared to be a mild shock that reminded me of the people I spoke with in Chanco and Pelluhue shortly after the quake and tsunami in 2010. Rural folks tend to be modest and reserved, and the reticence to express either pain or hope seems common after such a shocking event. Christian recounted his story of how he made sure his wife and children were out of harms way, ensconced with relatives in San Javier, before he dug in to protect his home from the fires. Sadly, his, and all his neighbor’s efforts were futile. He showed us where his house had been, now just a cement slab.
Not wanting to burden him further with our impertinent questions, we asked him for directions to Santa Olga, and he simply pointed to two smoldering hillsides just up the road. We were driving right into Santa Olga, and had hardly noticed.
Santa Olga’s 1,200 homes hugged the main road right at the Empedrado crossroads. Half on the north side, and half on the south side. From our vantage point as we approached from the east, it was so very obvious how the fires swept down out of the hills to envelop and then level their homes. Fires like this leave very little to clean up, but a pretty thorough clearing of metal roofing and other scrap metal had already been done.
At the same time, looking over what was left of the towns it occurred to me that the inhabitants must have had a fairly high level of confidence that they would be safely protected from the advancing fires because of their location on this main road. Standing above the town, looking down on what once was a bustling forest workers village, I could see in my mind images of the fearful but hopeful men, women, and children standing near their homes as they listened to radio reports of advancing fires, expecting to see the distant billowing smoke of fires abate.
But to their great disappointment and then fear, the fires were not stopped in time, and the inhabitants of Santa Olga were forced to evacuate their town. While the closeness to the highway did not save their homes from the fire, it did provide them with an easy exit to safer places, so few lives were lost.
The latest reports claim eleven lives were lost in the fires.
Santa Olga is now unwillingly the poster child of the Chile mega fires of 2017. The government of Chile is again doing what it does over and over after these disasters. A special representative of the President has been given authority over the massive reconstruction required.They set up emergency health posts, safe playgrounds for the children, even medical treatment for pets. A tedious registry begins of the inhabitants so they can be afforded vouchers to help them find temporary housing until permanent replacement housing can be built.
And the planning for permanent rebuilding of Santa Olga has begun. The sawmill that employed many of Santa Olga’s men and women, and which was the magnet that drew many of them to this town to live, also burned, along with several others up and down this same road. It will be rebuilt and has kept many of the employees working to provide some of them with a minimum livelihood immediately.
A huge question lurks over this town and its people. What happens now to the thousands of hectares of plantations that surrounded the town, fed the sawmills, and kept them employed? Trees were burned, but the charred stems of these trees still stand. Will they all be cut or just left to decay, and maybe burn again? Will the burned plantations be replaced by new plantings or not? Will the winter rains just weeks away create flooding and silt up the steams and rivers from massive erosion? Will the services of water, electricity, and gas be reestablished in this town, or will they try to move the people to another site like they tried unsuccessfully in the southern city of Chaitén after that volcanic eruption destroyed the town? The planning is ongoing. But the winter that will soon be upon them brings rain, and also cold.
So Santa Olga, this unfortunate small forestry town in central Chile, joins the list of towns that have faced the long, difficult post disaster rebuilding process: Dichato, Peyuhue, Chanco, Chaitén, Constitución, Chillán, Valdivia, Tocopilla.
We were in Santa Olga on a Sunday. It was quiet, even eerie. Where devastation and fear had gripped the town over the past couple of weeks, the tension and energy now seemed drained from this spot. It seemed like the whole place was taking a deep breath. Probably some rest and reflection will be therapeutic. The folks have been through a lot, and surely need time to simply be with loved ones, and begin to look ahead rather than back at the horror.
So, almost 600,000 hectares burned, half of which were industrial plantations to feed the pulp and paper and lumber industry, and 15,000 hectares of natural forest (This number is harder to determine than the plantations, so it will surely be adjusted, probably up, in the future). Half of the total lost is in Maule. Authorities are investigating 520 suspicious events, possible criminal actions that started fires. Small agriculture producers are getting assistance to meet their greatest short term needs of water, fodder, and shelter. The small local schools are being readied for the start of the school year in March.
The international fleet of planes that assisted with the fire suppression have all left Chile. Together, they flew about 350 missions, dropping four million liters of water. Putting that into perspective, the total amount of water dropped was twenty million liters, with sixteen million dropped by the Chilean national fleet of 33 planes hired through 16 different companies. Quite an operation after all, as you would expect for the second largest wild fire in recent history.
Energy, electric as well as human, will return to Santa Olga and surroundings as options for rebuilding the town are proposed. Highly centralized governments like Chile’s can design grand schemes for delivering relief to the victims, and reconstructing whole towns. Professional architects and builders are always at the ready to propose “newer and better” housing.
Already today, a group of architects has proposed to make Santa Olga the city of wood, “La Ciudad de Madera”, rebuilding the entire locality with wood products donated by the private sector wood industries. Their idea is to use the rebuilding of Santa Olga as a way to greatly expand, through demonstration, the use of wood in modern rural housing. It sounds like a great idea, because very little wood is used in housing in Chile, an obvious paradox in a country that produces so much wood to be sent away to others.
I hope the proponents of this scheme take a close look at a project announced after the 2010 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed several fishing villages in Maule, also designed by a group of University based architects, to build modern structures to benefit the artisan fishermen of those villages; they created the “Ruta de las Caletas“. There should be some lessons to be learned, and mistakes to be avoided.
Granted, highest priority for the government and for agencies of civil society like Desafio Levanta Chile and Red Cross, is the task of cleaning up after the fires, and making sure the victims are assisted as soon and as much as possible, housing, even if temporary, and clean reliable water are priority.
The large forest industries are already assessing the damage and programming necessary harvesting and replanting activities. This year’s replanting is going to be limited by the amount of nursery stock available, and the reforesting of lost plantations will surely take several years.
However, the attention span is historically short for problems that occur outside of the capital city of Santiago. Even now, just short days after the country was completely mesmerized by the spreading wild fires, the leading newspapers have gone pretty much silent on the most serious issues raised by the fires. The little attention they are paying to this event is focused on the ins and outs of the privately donated 747 super tanker and the details of how, when, and at what cost the huge fleet of water dropping aircraft was engaged by and on behalf of the Chilean government and her people. There is an insatiable thirst in the established and social media, and with some politicians, for evidence of corruption in contracting services, and incompetence at all relevant levels of government.
The public and many political leaders are calling for a reformation of CONAF, the semi-public national forest service, some arguing that had CONAF been a fully public institution, it would have handled the forest fires sooner and more efficiently. There is general agreement across the board that the institutional structure that has responsibility for Chile’s forestry sector, including plantations, natural forest lands, and protected areas, needs significant reform. In fact, a public/private Forest Policy Council was recently formed to prepare a policy prospective for the period 2015-35.
The report of this commission has been sitting with the President awaiting action for over one year. Making matters worse, the recently announced legislative agenda of 48 priority actions, announced by the president for the remainder of her term in office, did not include the forestry sector review and reform of CONAF.
The impact of the death and destruction from the recent fires should be enough to push the government to take action on forestry sector institutional reform. The fires have focused the discussion on CONAF and the forestry sector principally on plantation forestry, but also on natural forests and vegetative cover in surrounding farms, river valleys, and hillsides.
CONAF should be given the authority and means to pay more attention to how plantations and forests are managed. it should be strengthened in its fire prevention role and resources available for fire suppression, including stronger, better trained and more regular ground brigades, air patrols, and ready access to air tankers for water drops on fires.
Of the 14.3 million hectares of native forest believed to still exist in Chile, about 4.0 million hectares are in some form of legal protection. This is a huge area of extremely valuable land, the protection of which has been CONAF’s responsibility. New legislation is due to transfer this protective responsibility for national parks and reserves to the Ministry of the Environment. This change alone will force the issue of the needs of the forestry sector and the resources required to care for the country’s protected areas. Neither of these public land management issues have had high enough priority in recent public administrations; maybe the fires will spark some leadership now on these issues.
Today it was announced that the Agriculture Minister has asked the aforementioned Forest Policy Council to form a working group with CONAF to propose a plan to recover the forest and agriculture lands and resources lost to the fires. They are supposed to include the plight of small forest operations, support to forest workers and farmers, environmental education, and ecological restoration and sustainable management of plantations and native forests.
Reflecting the at times incendiary public debate precipitated by the fires, the Environmental Minister created a National Committee for Ecological Restoration. This group will reportedly focus on the restoration of native flora and fauna within protected areas (management of which is being transferred from CONAF to the Environmental Ministry) and in areas outside of the protected areas as well; in other words, everywhere.
A quick look at the individuals, institutions, and scientific inclinations of the members of these two groupings, charged with providing policies and programs to lead Chile out of the wild fires disaster, suggests an attempt to include a broad range of interests and knowledge bases. Each group will surely prepare a long list of important actions to be taken, but those lists will be considerably different. One will be broad, but more focused on the short to medium term, with a healthy economic content. The other will be equally broad, but focused on the longer term and less influenced by the short term financial health of the forest industry and less impressed by its contribution to the public accounts. One will be most concerned about production, the other protection.
If these two groups do not work together from the start, sooner or later the issues will have to be joined. Chances are they will not work together, even if they are urged to and say they will. The internal competitive nature of government, compounded by the pressures from civil society and legitimate private interests, will surely result in two reports, with two overlapping but non-coincident proposals.
Now is the time to recognize that prior attempts to enact better forestry sector laws and institutional reform to the benefit of the productive forest products sector, the health of the so-called System of Protected Areas, and the general environmental condition of the country failed in large part because of the juxtaposition of these interests. If this division is not bridged this time, the issues will again be pushed down the road. Memories are short.
Chilean forestry sector institutions, public and private, hold much expertise to tackle the challenge of meaningful reform of the sector. Universities, although weaker in forest sciences and protected area management than in the past, have excellent expertise in most relevant subjects. They all have cooperative relationships with world class Universities in North America and Europe they can call upon to enrich the discussion around sector reform. The government of Chile and related organizations have working collaborative programs with Massachusetts (read Harvard) and California (read UC Davis) which could be activated to help address the issues flowing from the fires.
Forestry sector reform in Chile must join the issues of industrial plantation forestry, management and expansion of the national system of public and private protected areas, significant investment in native forest management, and a healthier approach to land use planning especially where forest, agriculture, and urban centers meet. More understanding and incentives of mixed farming systems, agroforestry, would be part of such an approach.
One helpful contribution to forwarding this discussion could be a balanced set of recommendations on these issues prepared by an independent entity, possibly a Chilean think tank in association with other outside policy analysts. An approach that strives for higher levels of civil society adhesion between public and private interests, especially more balanced burden sharing, could be helpful. These recommendations should be prepared with the objective of presenting them to the candidates in the upcoming presidential election. Most presidential campaigns in the past have been noticeably devoid of a program for the forestry sector or the environment more broadly. The mega fires could provide the impetus to change this trend for the better.
The crucifix that stands overlooking the now desolate remains of Santa Olga, singed and surely sullen, holds a hopeful message of survival and perseverance for this town and hope for its inhabitants.
If the politicians, analysts, professionals, scientists, planners, and opinion leaders in Chile will also keep one eye on Santa Olga and her inhabitants, they will produce the laws and programs the country needs. If they don’t, and if memories of this tragedy wane, it will be business as usual….until next fire season.
Posted on February 20, 2017, in Santiago, Chile.