‘No Water in the Hydrants’: Communities Left Defenseless Against Chile’s Deadliest Wildfire

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‘No Water in the Hydrants’: Communities Left Defenseless Against Chile’s Deadliest Wildfire

Weeks after Chile’s deadliest wildfire, some firefighters and residents said a lack of water to fire hydrants had hampered efforts to combat the inferno that destroyed thousands of homes and killed 134.

In these videos from February, a Chilean firefighter recorded his desperate search for water as a wildfire hit his city. It was the deadliest wildfire in a decade and killed at least 134 people. It was a perfect storm of extreme climate conditions and management failures that left thousands of people vulnerable. It also offers a warning to cities faced with the increasing threats of climate change. Urban expansion, driven by unregulated housing development here, had taxed the water grid beyond what it was designed to handle and the magnitude of this wildfire exposed that weakness. The New York Times spoke with firefighters and residents in the two cities of Viña del Mar and Quilpué, who say that some hydrants on that critical day had little to no water pressure. Escape routes quickly became bottlenecks and death traps. What this disaster showed is that many cities are not prepared for wildfires that have become more frequent and intense. Rodrigo Mundaca, one of Chile’s staunchest water rights advocates, is currently governor of the region where the wildfire hit. Chile is one of the few countries in the world with a privatized water rights system. This climate catastrophe has reopened a long-standing debate in the country about unequal access to water, which often fails to reach the poorest communities. Now, some residents who lost homes or loved ones are demanding better protection. The majority of those who died in the wildfire lived in informal settlements along exposed hillsides, places where water companies are not required to put any hydrants at all. The closest hydrant to Ariel Orellana’s mother’s house in Quilpué was nearly half a mile away. He lost his mother, her husband, and his 14-year-old sister. Esval, which controls water rights for the region, denied wrongdoing and said that pressure fed to its hydrants may have dropped due to the sudden surge in demand. “I think our responsibility is none because we are sure that the hydrants were working. I understand the frustration of the people. I understand that they were expecting something different, but we are completely sure that what we did is 10 times what the regulation asks from us.” But Daniel Garín, a longtime volunteer firefighter, documented how he and his team struggled to find water to save people’s homes during the worst of the firefight. A number of residents in Quilpué are now seeking compensation from Esval for damages to their homes that they say resulted from hydrants with no water. And the country’s Ministry of Public Works is investigating specific complaints that Esval failed to provide adequate water to combat the wildfire.

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