Chile’s largest botanical garden looks like ‘smoker’s lungs’ after forest fires

Chile’s largest botanical garden looks like ‘smoker’s lungs’ after forest fires

The Viña del Mar National Botanical Garden was caught in the middle of the raging inferno that killed at least 131 people and destroyed entire neighborhoods in the coastal region of Valparaiso, 120 kilometers (75 miles) from Santiago.

There are large trees on its sides, blackened and uprooted, and the hills surrounding the gardens are covered with ash.

The 400-hectare (990-acre) gardens in the coastal town of Viña del Mar were always seen as a “green lung, but now they look more like a smoker’s lung,” said park director Alejandro Perano.

The site, first designed by French architect Georges Dubois in 1918, was home to 1,300 species of plants and trees, including native and exotic ferns, members of the myrtle family, mountain cypresses, Chilean palms, and Japanese cherry trees.

Perano described the fire as ferocious and erratic, jumping from tree to tree, and destroying a large portion of the gardens in one hour.

He said, “Out of optimism, I say that five hectares were saved and the rest was burned.”

The lands were also home to marsupials, gray foxes, birds and the Chilean mongoose, which were likely affected.

– Hiroshima trees survive –

Among the miraculous survivors is the toromero, a yellow-flowered tree from remote Easter Island that is extinct in the wild but grows in some botanical gardens and private collections of seeds collected decades ago.

“At some point, we received the seed and we reproduced it here and we have a beautiful collection,” the director says. “The fire passed over it, so what could have been the most painful loss did not happen.”

Also unharmed were trees from the Peace Garden, which grew from seeds of trees that survived the atomic bomb in Hiroshima in 1945, and which Japan has shared around the world.

Perano, who held the position for ten years and managed 60 workers, said that even though the trees had “turned brown due to the heat, they would remain standing.”

He and several other park employees live on the site, but were able to escape the flames.

One of them, nursery director Patricia Araya, died in the fire, along with her mother and two granddaughters. The 60-year-old was due to marry again this week.

Daniela Gutierrez, 32, who oversees the collection of local cacti, described herself as having a “green thumb, because everything she plants grows.”

The botanical garden has previously been damaged by major fires in 2013, 2018 and 2022, but Perano described the weekend’s inferno as the most violent on record.

It is suspected that the matter was started intentionally, which the authorities are investigating.

The park hopes to reopen to the public within a few weeks, but it is expected to take five years to recover from the damage.

If another fire of that size occurred at that time, “we would be gone as a botanical garden,” Perano said.


    (tags for translation)George Dubois

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