Tragedy, resilience and miracle in Chile’s Burnt Botanical Garden
On Friday afternoon, several hundred people were strolling through the idyllic grounds of Chile’s National Botanical Garden, most of them unaware that a raging wildfire was heading toward them across some hills and a highway.
The danger soon became clear. Rangers began racing around the park on motorcycles, chanting for visitors to run to the exits. But by the time many got there, the fire had already arrived.
“Thick black smoke was billowing above us, so we lay down on the grass inside the gate,” Alejandro Perano, the park’s director, recalled Monday morning. “One of my guards turned to me and said, ‘Director, are we going to die?’
Elsewhere, three other rangers were trying to rescue colleague Patricia Araya, 60, a greenhouse keeper who lives at the park and was caring for her two grandchildren and her 92-year-old mother. They reached the gate of her cabin, but the fire was approaching them. “I felt the heat burning my back. I realized it was burning pieces of bark falling on me,” Freddy Sanchez, 50, said Monday, standing guard at the park’s entrance.
“We had to turn around,” he said. “All your body wants is to find a way out of the heat.”
The crowd gathered on the front lawn escaped death, a miracle of sorts, considering that 98 percent of the nearly 1,000-acre park was destroyed.
But Ms Araya, her mother and two grandchildren did not die, making them four of 122 confirmed deaths in one of the deadliest wildfire outbreaks in modern history.
Authorities on Monday using cadaver dogs continued to search for bodies across nearly 40 square miles burned by fast-moving wildfires Friday in Valparaiso province, a popular resort area near Chile’s central coast.
They also assessed the wider devastation, including about 15,000 homes and one of Chile’s national jewels: the 107-year-old Viña del Mar National Botanical Garden.
Spanning 1.5 square miles, the botanical garden is one of the largest in the world and is an important center for conservation and research in the region. Over the decades, staff have built and studied a diverse park that includes more than 1,000 species of trees, including some of the rarest trees in the world.
Because of Chile’s isolated geography, located between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, the country is home to many endemic plant species, meaning they appear nowhere else in the wild.
The park has played an active role in preserving these species, including many rare cactus species. It also contains medicinal plants, exotic plants from Europe and Asia, a large collection of species from the remote Juan Fernandez Islands in the Pacific, and some of the last known Sophora toromero trees in the world, which are native to Rapa Nui, or Easter Island. But it is now extinct in the wild.
“It is a terrible loss. This was the first time we had seen this garden,” said Noelia Álvarez de Roman, a Latin America specialist at the International Botanic Garden Conservation Organization, a global network of botanic gardens. Years and years of research by many of people in that garden, which led to the cultivation of special collections.”
Mr Perano said the park had been damaged by fires in the past, including in 2013 and 2022, with about a quarter of the land burned. “We are used to it. We patrol the most sensitive areas every day, clean the areas and educate people,” he said.
“But this fire was completely unexpected,” he added. “We’ve never seen anything this big before.”
Mr. Perano stressed that the lives lost were far more devastating than the physical damage. Ms. Araya has worked at the park for about 40 years, and this week she planned to have a new wedding with her old partner and then go on vacation together, Perano said in a television interview.
She had already taken time off work on Friday, and her two grandchildren, ages 1 and 9, had come to stay with her earlier that day, he said.
On Monday, authorities reiterated their belief that the fires were started intentionally.
Authorities have determined that at least one major fire started around 2 p.m. Friday in four different areas, just meters away from each other, Rodrigo Mundaka, the governor of Valparaiso province, told reporters.
“Does it seem to me that this could be spontaneous and natural? No,” he said, adding that national forest workers had put out deliberately lit fires the day before. “So, I say today that there is clear intent here and we hope that the authorities will be able to find those responsible,” he added. .
Two people were arrested on Sunday on suspicion of trying to start fires near the Botanical Garden, but were later released because police said they did not have enough evidence. Authorities said they would maintain the overnight curfew while they continued their investigation and recovery from the fires.
High temperatures and dry conditions before the fires led to dangerous conditions in Chile. The periodic climate phenomenon known as El Niño has contributed to high temperatures and drought in parts of South America, and global climate change has led to widespread warming.
Strong winds on Friday caused the fires to spread rapidly, catching authorities by surprise and leaving many people trapped as they tried to escape hillside settlements. By Monday, firefighters had largely contained the fire.
At the botanical garden, smoke from burning eucalyptus forests still hung in the air as workers carved down fallen trees with chainsaws, and helicopters carrying huge buckets of water flew overhead. Mr Perano was clearly saddened when he described the charred gardens behind him as a “treasure for Chileans”, but he was also determined to see the forest grow again.
“Native plants will flourish again, but we will need rain, and we won’t get it until May,” he said. He added that some of the park’s exotic species also survived the inferno, such as the historic 150-year-old banyan tree in Lahaina, Hawaii, which began sprouting leaves just weeks after a massive fire destroyed much of the city.
Some of the surviving plants included a few nearly extinct Sophora toromero trees from Rapa Nui, as well as ginkgo biloba trees from the park’s “Peace Garden,” which consisted of plants that survived the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, Japan.
“They had the strength to grow after Hiroshima,” he said in a television interview on Monday. “Now they will be twice as powerful if they overcome this stage, because the fire passed through them. The trees and what they represent will be twice as powerful.”
Daniel Police And Liz Morricone Contributed to reports.