Chilean park recovering from fire

Last updated at 08:07 25 May 2005


It took a month and 800 fire-fighters to put out an immense wildfire earlier this year in remote southern Chile's Torres del Paine national park, renowned for its awe-inspiring granite spires and glaciers.

Now, near the southern tip of the world where the growing season is compressed into a few months, authorities have begun the long process of helping nature heal from the park's worst fire in decades, started when a Czech tourist's camp burner blew over.

Tourism officials are assuring nervous tour operators from France to Japan that Chile's most famous park is still a rugged backpackers' paradise. Tourism pumps an estimated $75 million a year into Chile's extreme south.

'Something that man caused, man can also fix,' said Marco Cordero, regional director for Conaf, Chile's forest service.

Immediate concerns are that erosion could alter the park's brilliant turquoise lakes, invasive plant species could gain a foothold or endangered wildlife could be forced outside the park's protective boundaries to forage for food.

As a token of goodwill, the Czech government contributed about $185,500 toward the recovery, which is expected to cost $7 million.

Preserving this pristine hinterland in the heart of Patagonia, a loosely defined region that encompasses southernmost Chile and Argentina, is about more than aesthetics.

'Tourism for the Magellan region is one of the main sources of revenue,' said Miguel Angel, regional director for Chile's Sernatur tourism department.

Torres del Paine is Chilean Patagonia's main attraction, but the Straits of Magellan, Tierra del Fuego, Cape Horn and Antarctica are other popular destinations.

Most people who journey to this far-flung, glacier-encrusted region expect to encounter its legendary wind. It forces trees to grow sideways and has merited a mention by every prominent chronicler to pass through in the last 500 years.

The wind frustrated the efforts of fire-fighters gathered from all over Chile and Argentina to put down the fast-moving blaze, which seemed to send fingers out in all directions.

Authorities point out that only a fraction of the park burned - 45 square miles (117 square km) of a total of 935 square miles (2,420 square km) - and this was more than a mile (1.2 km) from the park's signature spires, which jut from plains in a cluster like a prairie Atlantis.

Still the damage is startling. Travellers on the park's easternmost road drop over a hill to find themselves suddenly surrounded by a barren moonscape. In sections, charred ground stretches for as far as the eye can see.

The fire, which began on Feb. 17, hit at the peak of the park's four-month tourist season, which starts in December, the middle of the southern-hemisphere summer.

Tourism officials say they have not seen a unusual dip in visitors, who number about 100,000 a year from 80 different countries. As a precaution, they put the word out at travel fairs around the globe that Torres del Paine is still very much worth the trip.

 

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