In Chile, natural disasters fall on all-volunteer fire service

Firefighters respond to a blaze in the hills of Chile's Valparaiso region, February 3, 2024 (Javier TORRES)
Firefighters respond to a blaze in the hills of Chile's Valparaiso region, February 3, 2024 (Javier TORRES)

From earthquakes to tsunamis and massive fires, Chile is prone to natural disasters -- but the firefighters called up to tackle them are all volunteers with day jobs, like architect Jorge Pena or insurance salesman Cristian Lobos.

Both men dashed to the scene of the world's third-worst wildfire tragedy last weekend in the country's coastal Valparaiso region, where 131 people have been killed and entire communities razed.

Pena, a 33-year-old architect, drove 12 hours from his home in southern Chile to help fight the raging inferno.

He said that in his 11 years as a volunteer firefighter, "what has most shocked me has been the magnitude of the destruction of this fire."

The job has had hair-raising moments, such as when he found himself surrounded by flames during a 2017 "firestorm."

"Before, I didn't think about it when attending these emergencies, but now I think about it a little more. My son is almost a year old," he said.

Nevertheless, "I will always continue" as a volunteer, he adds.

Pena and his colleagues are now focused on clearing debris and cooling down areas they spot with residual embers -- to remove the possibility of them reigniting, and also so that bodies can be retrieved.

Without a state-funded fire service, Chile relies on some 50,000 men and women like Pena, who are financed by foreign, private and state donations.

Their organization is a kind of NGO that has its own training academy, though members do not receive any remuneration for their dangerous work.

- 'Until you die' -

Lobos, a 43-year-old father of three, normally sells health insurance policies in Vina del Mar -- which has now become the worst-hit area in the fires.

He hung up his tie to help extinguish the flames as they consumed densely populated neighborhoods, and is now leading a group looking for human remains in the charred skeletons of burned-out houses.

"We have recovered victims in varying states... bodies completely charred, others slightly burned," he said.

Lobos has been a volunteer for 23 years.

"When you take the decision, you do the courses, and generally stick with it until you die."

Since the fires surged on Friday -- in the country's worst tragedy since a 2010 earthquake and tsunami -- he has slept little and only spoken to his children via video call.

He lives near the suburb of Villa Independencia, where 19 people died, and says he saw everything -- including "how the fire advanced, how houses, lives, animals and cars were affected."

Lobos said the inferno was the "most chaotic and violent" of the emergencies has assisted with.

"Our own firefighters lost homes or cars," although luckily none had lost their lives or loved ones, he said.

He added he is proud of the fact that in Chile, volunteer firefighters can count on the "understanding" of their employers and families.

He plans to keep going as a volunteer "until I die, or my body no longer allows me to contribute."