One Month After the Devastating Fires in Valparaiso

One Month After the Devastating Fires in Valparaiso: Community Organizations Play a Leading Role in Recovery

Note from AHA: Mauricio, director of the community center mentioned below, was a participant in EPES’ 3rd International Training Course on Popular Education and Health. You can read more about EPES’ response and recovery plans via the ACT Alliance.

By Isabel Diaz, EPES

One month after the giant fire ravaged the hills of Valparaiso, the residents who were left homeless continue their precarious existence, living on their former property in tents or shacks of corrugated tin and boards rescued from the fire.  The first emergency dwellings have already confirmed their absolute lack of waterproofing.  As the winter cold and rains set in, the now bare hillsides, lacking any vegetation to contain the soil, also face threat of landslides. In addition, the lack of running water, poor nutrition, and cold weather heighten the susceptibility to illness.

People who live in land occupations in the ravines are even more vulnerable. These communities live in constant fear of being evicted from the place or not receive the same benefits as those who have deeds to their properties.

In the aftermath of the fire that destroyed 2,900 houses, caused 15 fatalities and left 12,500 people homeless, thousands of volunteers and community organizations from throughout the country responded to the emergency. Volunteers were fundamental for clearing a great amount of debris from the houses destroyed by the fire. Volunteers organized solidarity drives to collect food, clothing, personal hygiene items and other basic, urgently needed supplies. Today, few of the 15,000 volunteers who worked in the initial weeks after the fire are to be seen.  Yet the families still need support to prepare the ground for installing the emergency dwellings. Trucks do not go up the hills, so the pre-fab wooden panels for the emergency housing units must be brought up in any way people can.

The community of people who lost their homes complains that government officials are absent on the damaged hillside neighborhoods and have not solved the most pressing problems. Moreover, there is no information regarding how to apply for the promised emergency assistance funds. This situation reveals an operational failure of the municipal and central government response to the disaster.

In light of this state of affairs, community organization will be fundamental in fighting for their urgent demands.

The EPES Foundation responded to the emergency by initiating work in coordination with the Las Cañas Community Center, which serves as an aid distribution site, community dining hall that serves 300 lunches each day, place for holding meetings and for organizing efforts.

Common to many neighbors is a sense of powerlessness because they say the fire and the deaths could have been prevented. The deadly fire of this past April 12 is not the first to ravage the area. In February 2013 fire destroyed 105 houses, affecting 1200 people. Last year experts issued reports warning that the district was at risk to a major fire. Government officials simply ignored these warnings.

This week Cerro Las Cañas neighbors held a candlelight ceremony to remember the people who died, reflect about what they have lived through and think about the future. They envision a participatory reconstruction process that restores dignity to their lives and community.