• Chile leader to relocate Valparaiso fire victims
     | April 16,2014

    VALPARAISO, Chile — President Michelle Bachelet vowed Tuesday to reconstruct this once-beautiful port city according to a master plan that would prevent many of the 11,000 victims of devastating wildfires from rebuilding on hills that cannot be protected from disasters.

    The fires that started Saturday and leaped from hilltop to densely populated hilltop have been contained but not extinguished. Every stiff wind threatens to lift the burning embers, putting still more neighborhoods at risk. The fires already have consumed as many as 3,000 homes and killed 15 people while injuring hundreds more.

    “We think this is a tremendous tragedy, but ... it is also a tremendous opportunity to do things right,” Bachelet said in an interview with El Diario de Cooperativa. “What we’re looking at in terms of reconstruction, is how to rebuild in a more orderly manner, better and more worthy” of Valparaiso’s status as a World Heritage City.

    UNESCO granted the city that honor in large part because of its unique architecture, laid out on narrow, curving streets that climb hills so steep that many people commute by climbing stairways or riding cable cars. Brightly painted, improvised wooden houses hug forested hills and ravines, which form a natural amphitheater around Chile’s second-largest port.

    While the city is often blanketed by fog from the Pacific Ocean, it has been plagued throughout history by wildfires that can spread quickly when the wind blows out to sea. Indigenous Changos who lived there before the Spanish conquest called the area “Alimapu,” which means “land overtaken by fire,” said Orion Aramayo, an urban planning expert at Valparaiso’s Catholic University.

    While some fire victims were include middle-class families, thousands more lived in primitive conditions, sharing structures built on tiny ledges of land carved into the hills. Many of these homes were built illegally, lacking water and sewer connections, with improper foundations on dangerous slopes and no way for emergency vehicles to reach them in a crisis.

    Many experts blame the Chilean state for decades of uncontrolled growth.

    “The government is responsible for having allowed homes to be built in dangerous areas, and somehow it has to show these people that they’re in a place where their lives are at risk,” said architecture professor Jonas Figueroa at the University of Santiago.

    Valparaiso Mayor Jorge Castro bemoaned the city’s disorderly development on Sunday, saying “we are too vulnerable as a city: We have been the builders and architects of our own dangers.” But on Monday, he acknowledged that many people would rebuild in the same vulnerable spots.

    Bachelet, however, appeared firm in Tuesday’s interview.

    “Protecting the people comes first. And second, relocating them,” she said, suggesting that the state will expropriate land if it has to. “Honestly, I believe we have to do something more. It’s not enough to reinstall houses or support families. We have to do something more substantive.”

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