SANTIAGO – The recent death in Chile of two volunteer firefighters exposed the risks faced by the 48,000 members of that service, most of whom are in the midst of fighting the most widespread and destructive wildfires in the nation’s history.
At the funeral of firefighter Hernan Aviles, 35, his mother ranted at government spokeswoman Paula Narvaez with the words “It’ll be just fine going around begging for coins in the street!”
The Chilean Firefighters Corps was founded in 1863 after a tragic fire devastated the city of Valparaiso.
A group of volunteers then formed the country’s first firefighting corps and today, with that same spirit, their successors now fight to maintain their effectiveness and somehow obtain the funding needed to acquire the equipment they must have to deal with emergencies.
Their financing comes partly from the government as legislated under the 2012 Law of Firefighters, which also stipulates their different activities as well as the monthly payments for volunteers.
In the 2017 budget, the allocation for firefighters is 36 billion pesos ($65 million), less than amount allotted in 2016, which was 42 billion pesos ($65 million).
The head of the National Board of Firefighters Corps, Miguel Reyes, told EFE that “of the budget assigned, 85 percent is for the firefighters’ operating expenses and the rest is for paying civil servants at the fire stations, a group from which the volunteers are excluded.”
Municipalities also have their subsidies for firefighters that serve them. For example, the recently devastated town of Cauquenes in southern Chile on Jan. 27 paid them some 10 million pesos ($15,000) for helping to put out the fires.
The law establishes that in case of disaster, “the National Board of Firefighters Corps will coordinate the logistics of getting all the firefighters needed to the affected areas.” Yet the regulation does not assign additional funds for dealing with crises like the one Chile is currently going through.
Over the past three weeks, some 400,000 hectares (990,000 acres) have been scorched by the numerous fires burning in central and southern Chile, an area that grows to 558,000 hectares (1.4 million acres) when added to all the fires since the beginning of the season last July.
Some 7,000 firefighters and forest rangers, soldiers, police, municipal personnel, civilian volunteers and employees of private companies are fighting the vast blazes with the support of 39 aircraft, both planes and helicopters.
Up to now the flames have taken 11 lives – two firefighters and three forest rangers – and have left 3,782 homeless, 1,108 people lodged in temporary shelters and 1,012 homes destroyed.