Sparks fly as culprit sought for Chile blazes

Reuters News
Posted: Jan 30, 2017 5:06 PM

By Anthony Esposito

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - As Chilean authorities battle the historic blazes that have taken 11 lives, burned over 1,000 homes and wiped an entire town off the map, the theories about who may be to blame have spread as quickly as the wildfires themselves.

The fires have consumed over 379,000 hectares (937,000 acres) in recent days, and cost Chile's forestry industry $350 million in losses.

Forest fires are a regular feature of Chile's hot, arid summers, but a nearly decade-long drought combined with historically high temperatures have created tinder-dry conditions.

Authorities said the worst was over, but firefighters, aided by helicopters and airplanes, were still battling 61 fires as of Monday.

Amid signs not all the fires were accidental, conspiracy theories have abounded as to their origin, amplified by social media.

Nearly nine out of 10 people surveyed by pollster Cadem said they believed most of the fires were intentional and 75 percent disapproved of how the government had handled the disaster.

Ten people were in jail awaiting trial on suspicion they lit some of the fires, although the possible motives were unclear.

President Michelle Bachelet said the Justice Department was investigating to determine "who has been causing the fires in our nation, in those cases where there is malice and those case where there is negligence."

Bachelet said she had authorized the military to patrol rural areas in an effort to prevent any further arson.

Opposition lawmakers said the government had done too little, too late.

"They try to look for those responsible before putting out the forest fires to hide their own incompetence," tweeted independent opposition lawmaker Jose Manuel Edwards.

A video showing a man on horseback setting fields ablaze was widely distributed on social media as purported evidence of arson. The video's time stamp indicated it was recorded a year ago.

Chile's national prosecutor, Jorge Abbott, said his office would open an investigation into the false information on social media.

"Information about Colombian citizens and Mapuche indigenous people detained (for arson) is completely false," he said.

Chile's forestry industry asked for calmer heads to prevail as it also found itself on the defensive.

"We have seen many videos and photos on Twitter of things that are two to three years old and are shown as if they were happening now ... you also hear things like (forestry) companies are causing the fires themselves to collect insurance. That is absurd," industry group CORMA said.

(Reporting by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Peter Cooney)