VALPARAISO, Chile (AP) — President Michelle Bachelet vowed Tuesday to rebuild this once-beautiful port city according to a master plan that would prevent many of the 11,000 victims of devastating wildfires from rebuilding on hills that cannot be protected from disasters.
The fires that started Saturday and leaped from hilltop to densely populated hilltop have been contained but not extinguished. Every stiff wind threatens to lift the burning embers, putting still more neighborhoods at risk. The fires already have consumed as many as 3,000 homes, the president said.
"We think this is a tremendous tragedy, but ... it is also a tremendous opportunity to do things right," Bachelet said in an interview with El Diario de Cooperativa. "What we're looking at in terms of reconstruction, is how to rebuild in a more orderly manner, better and more worthy" of Valparaiso's status as a World Heritage City.
Valparaiso owes that honor, granted by UNESCO, in large part because of its unique architecture, laid out on narrow, curving streets that climb hills so steep that many people commute by climbing stairways or riding cable cars. Brightly painted, improvised wooden houses hug the city's 42 forested hills, which form a natural amphitheater around Chile's second-largest port.
But many of these homes were built illegally, lacking water and sewer connections, with improper foundations on dangerous slopes and no way for emergency vehicles to reach them in a crisis.
Neighborhoods have burned on 12 of the hills so far, reducing postcard images to scenes of denuded, smoking ruin.
Local authorities have called for a smarter rebuild, but have been hesitant to say how they'll deal with the thousands of evacuees desperate to put up tents and new shacks amid the rubble of their homes.
Bachelet appeared much more firm in Tuesday's interview. "Protecting the people comes first. And second, relocating them," she said, suggesting that the state will expropriate land if it has to. "Honestly, I believe we have to do something more. It's not enough to reinstall houses or support families. We have to do something more substantive."
All of Valparaiso remained under military rule Tuesday. About 5,000 firefighters, police, forest rangers, soldiers, sailors and civil defense workers joined the mammoth fight against the wildfires, which the forestry agency said could take 20 days to fully extinguish. More than 20 helicopters and airplanes flew nearly without pause, dropping water on the smoldering ruins.
The death toll rose to 15 on Monday, with the discovery of another body in the wreckage. Hundreds have been treated in hospitals, mostly for smoke inhalation. Several badly burned people were flown to Santiago for special care.
The fires have been so hot that they created their own fierce winds, spreading flames that Bachelet said grew to "dimensions never before seen."
Some people were already leaving the city's overflowing shelters and occupying the ruins. Hundreds of volunteers helped out, climbing single file through the wreckage with bottles of water and shovels.
"We're going to rebuild right here. Where else would we go?" said Carolina Ovando, 22, who lost the humble home where she had lived with three small children.