Conspiracy theories spread after Chile forest fires

The wreckage of homes destroyed by wildfires in Santa Olga town in Chile last month. The fires have cost the country's forestry industry $495 million in losses.
The wreckage of homes destroyed by wildfires in Santa Olga town in Chile last month. The fires have cost the country's forestry industry $495 million in losses.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

SANTIAGO • As the Chilean authorities battle the historic blazes that have taken 11 lives, burned more than 1,000 homes and wiped an entire town off the map, the theories about who may be to blame have spread as quickly as the wildfires themselves.

The fires have consumed over 379,000 ha in recent days, and cost Chile's forestry industry US$350 million (S$495 million) in losses.

Forest fires are a regular occurrence during Chile's hot summers, but a nearly decade-long drought has combined with historically high temperatures to create tinder-dry conditions.

The authorities said the worst was over but firefighters, aided by helicopters and airplanes, were still battling 61 fires as of Monday.

Amid signs that not all the fires were accidental, conspiracy theories have abounded as to their origin, amplified by social media.

Nearly nine out of 10 people surveyed by pollster Cadem said they believed most of the fires were intentional, and 75 per cent disapproved of how the government had handled the disaster.

Ten people were in jail awaiting trial on suspicion that they lit some of the fires, although the possible motives were unclear.

President Michelle Bachelet said the Justice Department was investigating to determine "who has been causing the fires, in cases in which there is malice and negligence".

Ms Bachelet said she had authorised the military to patrol rural areas to prevent any further arson.

A video showing a man on horseback setting fields ablaze was distributed widely on social media as purported evidence of arson. The video's time stamp indicated it was recorded a year ago.

Chile's national prosecutor, Mr Jorge Abbott, said his office would open an investigation into the false information on social media.

He added: "Information about Colombian citizens and Mapuche indigenous people detained (for arson) is completely false."

Chile's forestry industry asked for calmer heads to prevail as it also found itself on the defensive.

"We have seen many videos and photos on Twitter of things that are two to three years old and are shown as if they were happening now... You also hear things like (forestry) companies are causing the fires themselves to collect insurance. That is absurd," said industry group Corma.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 01, 2017, with the headline 'Conspiracy theories spread after Chile forest fires'. Print Edition | Subscribe