Chile blames deadly fires on Indian activists

Image: Rescue team members walk past burnt woodland after a forest fire near Temuco city in the south of Santiago
The body of a firefighter killed in southern Chile is carried out on Thursday.Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Chile's government said Friday that many of the wildfires burning out of control in Patagonia were set intentionally, and blamed a Mapuche Indian group that has long struggled to regain its ancestral lands for starting the blaze that killed seven firefighters.

The body of the seventh firefighter killed while trying to contain a blaze on the property of the Mininco Forestry company was recovered early Friday.

Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter directly named the "Coordinadora Arauco Malleco" group, whose leaders have been accused and in some cases convicted of violent attacks on forestry company property. He noted that only days earlier, the group burned a helicopter that would have fought the deadly fire.

"Based on this, one can conjecture and say that the group is behind other fires that could be intentional," Hinzpeter told reporters.

President Sebastian Pinera also said the wildfires appear to be acts of terror: "Behind this premeditated and criminal conduct is hidden activity of a terrorist nature."

Hector Rebolledo, the fire chief whose men were killed, said earlier this week that people were seen making charcoal in the area before the fires broke out, but regional authorities later determined that the deadly blaze appeared to have started simultaneously in 50 places — a clear sign of arson.

The forestry worker's union, which has tried to organize the firefighters, blamed Mininco for their deaths, accusing the company of leaving poorly trained and supported firefighters in unsafe conditions.

Mapuche activists did take responsibility for destroying the forestry company helicopter and several bulldozers, which it said were operating "illegally" on Indian territory.

Much of the area's forests were sold off after the Gen. Augusto Pinochet dictatorship expropriated them from the Indians, and governments since then have failed to reach an accord that satisfies all the Mapuche's demands.

"My people also lament these deaths, just as they have destroyed our mother earth!" Mapuche spokeswoman Natividad Llanquileo tweeted Friday in response to an Associated Press request for comment.

Strong winds, unusually high temperatures and dangerously dry conditions have fed about 50 major wildfires across southern Chile, destroying hundreds of houses, forcing the evacuations of thousands of people and causing millions of dollars in damage to the forestry industry.

A firefighter walks to tackle a wildfire at the Chilean Torres del Paine national park in the southern Patagonia region of Chile January 1, 2012. Around 12,500 hectares have been burnt by a wildfire that affected the world-renowned national park, which the Chilean government has declared a disaster area, local media reported. Picture taken January 1, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer (CHILE - Tags: SOCIETY ENVIRONMENT DISASTER)X01494

The fires also blackened much of the Torres del Paine national park, which attracts 150,000 tourists annually, most during the brief southern summer. An Israeli tourist has been blamed for starting the Torres del Paine blaze by setting fire to toilet paper after going to the bathroom, then failing to extinguish it completely.

Even drier conditions have sharply increased fire risk on the Argentine side of the Andes, where hundreds of firefighters Friday were working to contain a blaze near the town of El Hoyo in Chubut province. Gov. Martin Buzzi said that blaze also appeared to have been set intentionally, and his ministers blamed a land dispute between Indians and other local residents.

As in southern Chile, Mapuche Indians predominate in the area, and have occasionally clashed with ranchers and miners.