Chilean investigators on Saturday arrested and later freed on bond an Israeli tourist they believe inadvertently set off a massive wildfire that has ravaged a wide swath of pristine forest in Patagonia.
High winds for days fanned a blaze that began on Tuesday at the Torres del Paine National Park, a 2,400km2 paradise of mountains, forests and lakes in deep southern Chile.
A drop in the wind speed and higher humidity on Saturday helped slow the fire’s rapid advance. So far, it has destroyed about 11,500 hectares of woodland and scrub, officials said.
Israeli national Roten Singer, 23, has acknowledged that he did not properly extinguish a roll of toilet paper he had been burning, prosecutor Juan Melendez said after a hearing in Puerto Natales.
“The problem was that paper was set on fire in a park and it was not put out properly ... The penalty at the moment, for the infraction, is a violation of forest law. It is a minor penalty,” Melendez added.
Singer, who was held briefly and then freed pending trial, cannot leave the area and faces 41 to 60 days in jail and fines of between US$80 and US$300, officials said.
The fire broke out on a path that goes by Lake Grey on the northwestern side of the park, officials said.
The governor of Ultima Esperanza, Chile’s southernmost province where the park is located, told Radio Cooperative that the improved weather will finally let crews “battle the fire in a direct and frontal way.”
“Thanks to the weather window we expect to control three of the six fire hot spots,” Chilean Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter said.
However, Hinzpeter, who was visiting the Office of National Emergency where firefighting operations are being coordinated, warned that weather conditions were likely to deteriorate again.
“This will remain, for the next days, a dangerous fire, violent and difficult to control,” he said.
Chilean Environment Minister Maria Ignacia Benitez said the government would file a legal case against anyone found responsible for setting off the fire.
“This is clearly negligence on the part of tourists,” she said. “It may have been accidental ... but here there is also a responsibility of the people who do not respect the authorized [fire] areas.”
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera announced on Friday that the park, visited by more than 100,000 people each year, would remain shut throughout this month.
The blaze erupted late on Tuesday and advanced rapidly in dry conditions, forcing authorities to evacuate 700 people, mostly tourists, from the park, which is located about 3,000km south of Santiago.
The Chilean government has deployed four planes and a helicopter to the remote mountainous region, where 300 firefighters, soldiers and forest rangers battled to control the blaze.
Argentina, which has its own forests just across the border from Torres del Paine, has sent in emergency teams to help.
Aerial photographs showed a vast cloud of smoke obscuring the beautiful backdrop of snow-covered granite peaks, wild steppes and turquoise lakes.
Environmentalist group Accion Ecologica criticized what it said was the government’s slow response, drawing an unfavorable comparison with its rapid crackdown on students protesting education reforms.
“It would have been great to see a government as gifted at throwing water on the flames consuming our natural heritage, as they are [at shooting water at Chilean] citizens defending their rights,” activist Luis Mariano Rendon said.