On Friday afternoon, several hundred people wandered through the idyllic grounds of Chile's national botanical gardenin Viña del Mar, mostly unaware that, just across some hills and a road, a raging forest fire was galloping toward them.
The danger quickly became apparent. Rangers began racing through the park on motorcycles, yelling at visitors to flee toward the exits. But when many got there, the fire had already arrived.
“Thick black smoke was rising above us, so we lay down on the grass just inside the gate,” Alejandro Peirano, park director, recalled Monday morning. “One of my rangers turned to me and said, 'Director, are we going to die?' “
Elsewhere, three other rangers were trying to rescue a colleague, Patricia Araya, 60, a greenhouse manager who lived in the park and cared for her two grandchildren and her 92-year-old mother. They reached the door of her cabin, but the fire was getting closer. “I could feel the heat burning my back. “I realized that they were pieces of burning bark that fell on me.”Freddy Sánchez, 50, said Monday, standing guard at the park entrance.
“We had to turn around,” he said. “All your body wants is to find a way out of the heat.”
The crowd on the front lawn survived, a miracle of sorts, since 98% of the nearly 1,000-acre garden was destroyed.
Araya, her mother and her two grandchildren did not, becoming four of the 122 confirmed deaths in one of the deadliest wildfires in modern history.
Fire at the Botanical Garden in Viña del Mar, Chile. Photo The New York Times
On Monday, the authorities with cadaver detection dogs They continued the search for bodies in the almost 40 square kilometers burned by the fast-moving forest fires on Friday in the province of Valparaíso, a popular tourist area near Chile's central coast.
They also took stock of the broader destruction, including some 15,000 homes and one of Chile's national jewels: the 107-year-old National Botanical Garden of Viña del Mar.
A unique place
The botanical garden, which spans 1.5 square miles, It is one of the largest in the world and is also a crucial research and conservation center for the region. For decades, staff have built and studied a diverse garden, with more than 1,000 species of trees, including some of the rarest in the world.
Due to Chile's isolated geography, located between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, the country is home to many endemic plant species, meaning they do not occur anywhere else in the wild.
The garden played a decisive role in the preservation of those species, including many rare cacti. It has also featured medicinal plants, exotic plants from Europe and Asia, a large collection of species from the remote Juan Fernández Islands in the Pacific and some of the last known Sophora toromiro trees in the world, which are native to Rapa Nui, or Easter Island. , but they are now extinct in the wild.
“It is a horrible loss. Years and years of research that many people have done in that garden, cultivating special collections,” said Noelia Álvarez de Román, Latin America specialist at Botanic Gardens Conservation International, a global network of botanical gardens.
Peirano said the park had been damaged by fires in the past, including in 2013 and 2022, with about a quarter of the land burned. “We are used to it. We patrol the most sensitive areas every day, clean the areas and educate people,” he said.
“But this fire was completely unexpected”, he added. “We've never seen anything on this scale.”
Peirano stressed that the lives lost were much more devastating than the physical damage. Araya had worked at the park for about 40 years, and this week she and her longtime partner had planned to hold a new marriage ceremony and then go on vacation together, Peirano said in a television interview.
She had already taken Friday off work and her grandchildren, ages 1 and 9, came to stay with her that same day, she said.
Authorities reiterated Monday that they believed the fires They were intentionally provoked.
A view of Viña del Mar after the fires. The New York Times
Rodrigo Mundaca, governor of Valparaíso province, told reporters that authorities had determined that at least one large fire started around 2 p.m. on Friday in four different locations, within a few meters of each other.
“Does it seem to me that this could be spontaneous, natural? No”he said, adding that national forestry workers had put out intentionally set fires a day earlier. “That is why today I say that there is a clear intention here and we hope that the authorities can find those responsible.”
Two people were arrested on Sunday on suspicion of trying to start fires near the botanical garden, but were later released because police said they did not have enough evidence. Authorities said they would maintain nighttime curfews as they continued their investigation and recovery from the fires.
High temperatures and dry conditions before the fires created dangerous conditions in Chile. The cyclical climate phenomenon known as El Niño has contributed to heat and drought in parts of South America, and global climate change has also raised temperatures.
Strong winds on Friday caused the fires to spread rapidly, surprising authorities and leaving many people trapped trying to escape hillside settlements. On Monday, Firefighters had largely contained the fire.
At the botanical garden, smoke from burned eucalyptus forests still hung in the air, as workers carved fallen trees with chainsaws and helicopters carrying huge buckets of water flew overhead. Peirano was clearly saddened and called the charred gardens behind him “a treasure for Chileans,” but he was also determined that the forest would grow again.
“Native plants will bloom again, but we will need rain, and we won't get it until May,” he said. He added that some of the garden's exotic species also survived the inferno, like the historic 150-year-old banyan tree in Lahaina, Hawaii, which began sprouting leaves just weeks after a wildfire destroyed much of the city.
Some of the surviving plants included some of the almost extinct trees Sophora toromiro, as well as Ginkgo biloba trees in the park's “Peace Garden,” which is made up of plants that survived the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, Japan.
“They had the strength to spring forth after Hiroshima,” he said in a television interview Monday. “Now they will have double their strength if they overcome this stage, because the fire passed through them. The trees and what they represent will be twice as strong.”