This is the eleventh post in Fire Stories, a 12 part series of pieces edited by Mica Jorgenson and written by environmental historians and their disciplinary neighbours about encountering fire in the archives and on the land.
During the first half of the 20th century, farmers in Araucanía, Chile, regularly burned weeds and young forests before cultivating. In 1943, a combination of drought, illegal burning (during the austral summer), and problems in forest management turned a regular burning season into a wildfire disaster. The history of the fires, as told through the region’s newspaper El Diario Austral, is useful for understanding how the fires were embedded within larger themes in Chilean social, economic, and environmental history —and how the Araucanía fires were part of broader global trends in the history of land management and climate change.
In the afternoon of 7 January 1943 Temuco citizens were exhausted by the abnormal temperatures, which exceeded the 34°C. The reason: the heat from fires that commenced in the early morning of the same day. Testimonies suggest that they started in the Quepe lagoon, and then moved towards Cherquenco and Curacautín. According to police, wind drove their advance. Ultimately, Cherquenco would be the most affected: the fire destroyed 40 homes occupied by tenant farmers; wounded 20 and killed 4 people and 500 animals. From Cherquenco, the journalist informed that “eyes ache due to the intense smoke that invades every corner” [Duelen los ojos debido a que la humareda intensa invade todos los rincones].1 Hundreds of people lost their houses, furniture, and possessions. Response by authorities accomplished little: authorities complained that they did not have enough aircraft, nor the communication technology required to detect the location of the fires accurately and quickly.
By the second week of January the events were already being labelled as extraordinary. An editorial in the Diario Austral referred to the fire as a “Catastrophe in the rainforest [catástrofe en la selva].”2 However, the author admired “the human supportive distinction with which the Supreme Government, the individuals and the public services answered to the tragedy aiding the victims of such a vegetal disaster, unparalleled in its projections [la humana prestancia solidaria con que se ha respondido a los particulares y servicios públicos que han acudido en socorro de las víctimas de ese desastre vegetal que ha sido sin igual en sus proyecciones].” Another writer called the events a vengeance of the forest against the progress that has destroyed it.3
In January 13, A. Edwards blamed the fire on the “excessive drought of this year, because there has not been rain for the last 45 days, something abnormal and that it has dried the grass [la excesiva sequía que ha habido este año, ya que hace 45 días que no llueve, lo que es anormal y tiene todo como yesca].” If the drought provided the fuel, human failure provided the spark: railway companies refused to use a protector metal plate in the chimney to reduce the number of sparks jumping towards the surrounding fields. “In other instances, there are careless workers of land states who, with complete irresponsibility, make fires […] where the grass is too dry […] There is also the case of sawmill workers who took little caution […] and at last, the case of people who, without care, ignite a fire albeit the whole neighbourhood is burnt, and these must be punished severely [Otras veces son descuidos de trabajadores de fundos, que con absoluta inconciencia hacen fuego donde hay pasto muy seco…también hay el caso de aserradores operados con pocas precauciones…y por fin el caso de gente que sin importarle nada, dan fuego a su roce, aunque se queme toda la vecindad y a éstos debe castigarse severamente].”4
An estimate location of the burn areas according to the Diario Austral newspaper.
Enlarge the view using the button on the top right or expand the legend to explore the burn areas using the button on the top left.
Chilean observers lamented the destruction of the native forest because it was an important contributor to the health of the country. “The forest reserves are disappearing with an alarming speed […] they are being gradually destroyed for an immediate commercial interest […] the old Chilean chronists explained the goodness of our climate due to the extensive forests in the central and southern zone.”5 Therefore, the forests were more than a mere reservoir of raw materials—they were fundamental to the character of the nation.
On 19 January, the fire spread towards Pucón and Cunco, affecting several states, killing three people and wounded three more. In Pucón an official agent was shocked by the contrast between the opulence of the tourists in the Pucón Hotel and the poverty of the general population affected by the fires. By 27 January the wildfires reached the proximities of Argentina, an advance that required the Chilean government, to begin efforts at coordinating wildfire response with its neighbour. In Cunco, the victims claimed that they did not want anything to be given to them. It was enough to receive as a loan from the Agricultural Subsidy and the Corporation of Production Development, money, seeds, nails, and necessary tools to start the cultivation of their fields again.
The impacts of the January heat and its fires stretched out of the Andes and into the lowlands. In Temuco, a fire in Chivilcán threatened the drinkability of the water supply for the city, and in Quepe and Metrenco, sparks coming from a train left several peasants without crop fields.
During February they occurred more often. A government coordinating office was established in Temuco to cope with the emergency; the Ñielol Hill, the “main forest reserve and space of recreation [el principal paseo y reserva forestal]” of Temuco was almost destroyed if the rain would not have arrived;6 and, apparently, the fires were so strong that it caused the advance of a pride of hungry pumas (Puma concolor) searching for food in the surroundings of Niagara, in the Temuco state. According to the newspaper, more than 20 sheep died, and a kid was injured due to the attack. The owners of the state asked the police to eliminate the animals.7 By the first week of the month, the damage of the fire on roads and bridges of the region had already cost 100,000 Chilean pesos in total. To get a sense of the cost, consider that 100,000 pesos in 1943 could have bought 40,000 individual meals.
In the aftermath of the fires, a writer named Luis Schmidt argued that the forest law needed reform, because it did not properly regulate the slash-and-burn agriculture, and that there should be more forest rangers to enact the law. Chileans worried that tourist attraction points around the Calafquen, Villarrica and Panguipulli lakes were being destroyed.8 Schmidt recommended building a model of forest protection like the one in Argentina.
At the end of February, the fires seemed to have ignited extreme anxieties, and pointed to divisions within society. For example, Roque Hernández Muñoz commented that “the world is in flames […] the fire drips with impunity devastating mountains, fields, and valleys [El mundo está en llamas…el fuego se escurre impúnemente arrasando montañas, campos y valles].”9 Four days later, an anonymous writer called not only for harsher sanctions against forest destroyers, since “it is the primitive and irresponsible practice of slash-and-burn of the forests [la práctica primitive e irresponsible de la quema de bosques]” the cause of the destruction. He added that “we live in a country where the lack of foresight is one of its main elements of its race [vivimos en un país en donde la imprevisión constituye uno de los elementos medulares de la raza],” and lamented that it took horrible surprises like the January fires to drive change in Chilean governance. Therefore, the government aid should not only be about giving money to the victims, but also to drive a change in Chilean culture and administer harsher sanctions to “the completely illiterate and primitive masses of peasants [masas de campesinos totalmente analfabetas y primitivas].”10
Ultimately, the fires sparked rapid changes, both on individual and policy levels. On March 5, the newspaper celebrated the settlers of the Tunel Las Raíces Forest Reserve who discovered that by accruing the useless wood in batches away from the native trees the chances of fire were diminished notably. Moreover, this required a low level of oversight. They were aided by the arrival of the first rains of the year on 10th March, which extinguished the fires and ended the tragedy —at least for a while. Two more years would be needed to begin a discussion around other strategies of fire control, such as fire lines, a technique already used by the British in India, since the last quarter of the 19th century.
The fires of 1943 not only left traces in the land, but in memories of Chilean people and the shape of Chilean land management. As much as in other parts of the world, the destruction of the forest ignited discussions around forestry, environmental education, ecology, economy, and even Chilean identity. The Araucanía fires point to the inherent connectivity of worldwide histories of climate change, forestry, and disaster which have not normally included the Andes.
- “Enormes pérdidas causa un incendio que abarca más de 10 fundos,” El Diario Austral (Temuco), January 8, 1943.
- “Trabajo y socorro para los damnificados del incendio de bosques,” El Diario Austral (Temuco), January 11, 1943.
- “Un incendio en la selva,” El Diario Austral (Temuco), January 12, 1943.
- A. Edwards, “Incendios de bosques,” El Diario Austral (Temuco), January 13, 1943.
- “Reservas forestales,” El Diario Austral (Temuco), January 15, 1943.
- “El fuego sigue siendo una amenaza para el cerro ñielol; anoche podía verse en Monte Verde desde Temuco”, El Diario Austral (Temuco), February 19, 1943.
- “Manada de leones hambrientos causa daños en fundo Temuco,” El Diario Austral (Temuco), February 3, p. 5.
- Luis Schmidt, “Incendio de bosques,” El Diario Austral (Temuco), February 3, 1943
- Roque Hernández Muñoz, “Llamaradas,” El Diario Austral (Temuco), February 19, 1943.
- “Incendios de bosques en el sur,” El Diario Austral (Temuco), February 23, 1943.