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Mass wildfire rages through Patagonian national park

Video by Josh Vardey

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2011-12-31

A wildfire that has been blazing through the pristine Torres del Paine national park in Chile since Thursday has forced authorities to shut down the park throughout January, at the peak of the hiking season. Over 100,000 people visit it every year.

AFP - Chile closed Friday one of its most popular national parks in peak hiking season after a massive wildfire ravaged tens of thousands of acres of pristine Patagonia and showed no signs of abating.

High winds fanned the blaze at the Torres del Paine National Park, a 2,400-square-kilometer (927-square-mile) paradise of mountains, glaciers, natural forests and lakes in deep southern Chile visited by more than 100,000 people each year.

After meeting emergency officials struggling to get a grip on the inferno, President Sebastian Pinera announced that the park would remain shut throughout January.

Some 11,000 hectares (27,200 acres) of woodland and scrub, nearly four percent of the total area of the park, has already been destroyed by the blaze, which more than quadrupled in size in less than 24 hours.

The Chilean government has deployed four planes and a helicopter to the remote mountainous region, where 300 firefighters, soldiers and forest rangers were engaged in a desperate effort to get the inferno under control.

Aerial photographs showed a vast cloud of smoke obscuring the beautiful backdrop of snow-clad granite peaks, wild steppes and turquoise lakes.

"We are faced with a hugely complex situation, an extreme scenario, mainly due to topography, strong winds and highly combustible vegetation," said Vicente Nunez, head of Chile's Office of National Emergency (ONEMI).

A crucial break could come late Friday or Saturday, when 10 to 15 millimeters (0.4 to 0.6 inches) of rain were expected.

The US State Department earlier Friday alerted US citizens in an advisory to the ongoing forest fires and urged them to avoid heading to the region.

The blaze erupted late Tuesday and advanced rapidly in dry conditions, forcing authorities to evacuate 700 people, mostly tourists, from the park, which is located some 3,000 kilometers (1,860 miles) south of Santiago.

Environmentalist group Accion Ecologica criticized what it said was the government's slow response to the wildfire, drawing an unfavorable comparison with its rapid crackdown on students protesting education reforms.

"We would have liked to see a government as gifted at throwing water on the flames consuming our natural heritage as they are on citizens defending their rights," said activist Luis Mariano Rendon.

A 2005 bush fire started by a Czech backpacker destroyed 160 square kilometers (62 square miles) of the Torres del Paine National Park, which was designated a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1978.

Pinera pledged another 100 personnel would join crews on Saturday and said his government would seek "all necessary assistance" from other countries, having already contacted Argentina, Australia and the United States.

Neighboring Argentina, which has its own forests just across the border from Torres del Paine, has sent in emergency teams to help.

Date created : 2011-12-31

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