Wildfires in Valparaiso put animal rescue preparedness in Chile to the test
In Valparaiso, Chile, picturesque communities built on steep hillsides overlooking the Pacific Ocean live up to the city’s reputation and declaration as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
But on April 12, the same qualities that make it so unique made evacuations and rescue operations particularly difficult when a wildfire spread from hilltop to hilltop. The densely populated villages fled and clogged the labyrinth-like roads, while fire-fighters struggled to access these communities and extinguish the flames. Limited access to water supplies compounded the issues. After several days, the fires were put out, but more than 2,500 homes were destroyed and 11,000 people were displaced. Sadly, 15 people died in the fire.
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The International Fund for Animal Welfare’s (IFAW) Disaster Response team partnered with the Global Alliance for Animals and People (GAAP), formerly operating as Veterinarians Without Borders, to assist the local municipality by providing an assessment of how animals were affected by the fires and identify any gaps in their operations. Our team was informed that an overwhelming number or volunteers and donations had come into Valparaiso, but I had no idea what I was about to see.
Valparaiso is about a one hour and a half car ride outside of Santiago, making it an easy destination for volunteers to travel to, and with Easter week falling right after the disastrous fires took place, the area was flooded with volunteers. Our first stop was an emergency animal hospital and shelter set up by volunteers under the Ministry of the Environment at a local school.
About 150 cats and dogs were being housed and treated- many of these animals suffered from smoke inhalation and burns, especially on their paw pads. There were almost an equal number of volunteers- some veterinary students from nearby schools who were vigilantly monitoring patients and others were volunteers providing food and water to the pets or trying to keep up with the constant flow of donations coming through the door.
After visiting other temporary shelters and the devastated communities, I realized that this enthusiasm to help was all throughout Valparaiso. Thousands of volunteers were working throughout the affected hills, providing meals for residents, helping to clear debris and start the process of rebuilding. But it was clear that two of the most difficult and less glamorous tasks in disaster response, volunteer management and logistics, was what the municipality needed help with the most.
We met with officials from the municipality and emergency management to discuss our assessment and recommended strategies for coordinating efforts and managing volunteers. IFAW’s Disaster Response team previously presented at the Animal Rescue during Disasters Symposium sponsored by the University of Chile’s Center for Veterinary Environmental Management in October 2013 and is planning a follow-up workshop. Chile is one of the most earthquake-prone countries in the world- including animals in disaster planning will help coordinate future responses more successfully.
IFAW helps communities around the world develop disaster preparedness plans that fit their individual needs. In addition to disaster-work, GAAP also partners with IFAW’s Companion Animal program to assist communities in managing dog populations; together they are currently working in Puerto Natales.
For more information about IFAW Animal Rescue efforts around the world, visit our campaign page.