You know what I’ve been sucking at doing lately? UPDATING THIS BLOG.

I apologize folks, especially to those of you who were waiting with bated breath to see via my blog that I had survived the recent fire in Valparaiso.

OK, that was nobody at all, but in case there was any doubt, I’M ALIVE. But here’s the scoop: the fire broke out on April 12th due to a wild fire in the brushy areas at the top part of a hill. Around that date, we had been experiencing some extremely fierce winds for just a couple days or so. This fire, with that wind, quickly spread and began to engulf houses.

The houses up in those parts, however, are some of the poorest. Lacking access to water, there was no way for firefighters to connect to fight the flames, but that was only when the trucks could get up there.

Strong winds. Densely packed houses made of wood. A terribly hungry fire.

I snapped this photo of the fire on Saturday night. Haunting, eerie glow from the flames. We counted 8 focal points.

 

It raged until Monday, recruiting not only every fire fighter in the city of Valparaiso (who, I should add, are all volunteer firefighters), but also helicopters and airplanes dumping water from above from both Chile and Argentina.

All told, over 12,500 people have been affected by this fire which, according to anyone you ask here, is by far the worst fire to ever hit Valparaiso.

And while it affected several of the 42 hills here, the effects have been felt by everyone. The entire night of Saturday and the whole day of Sunday saw a steady stream of ash raining onto houses throughout the city, including our patio. Any visit to the city center on those days felt similar to a post-apocalyptic movie scene. On Sunday, we saw the inky cloud of the fire drifting toward sea against the brilliantly clear blue sky.

Looking at the fire from Avenida Argentina

 

It has been a very painful and heartbreaking event to witness. Even though I am a foreigner, even though my house and hill were not affected, I consider Valparaiso my home. Watching the scene on Sunday brought tears to my eyes multiple times as I saw families fleeing the hills, all their belongings in duffel bags, as they sought refuge and the inevitable wait to find out just how much of everything they would lose.

Some people didn’t have time to pack. And others didn’t even have time to get out. This fire claimed the lives of 15 people.

Through the time since the fire, Jorge and I have been donating money, time, and possessions. We donated every extra bit of everything in this vagabond house last Sunday. Every time we go to a particular part of the center, we donate cleaning supplies to one of the many shelters set up for the people who lost their homes. And last Friday we went up into the hills with a friend to shovel out rubble from properties.

We went higher up into the hills than I’ve ever been before. I’ve never seen Valpo from these angles.

 

Assessing the damage.

 

Helping to dig out the burnt remains of a man’s house.

 

We didn’t know him, we just found them and offered to help.

I’m no delicate flower but I’m also not a burly woodsman. The shoveling was back breaking work. We were at it for three hours and my body hurt for days, not to mention the two shiny blisters I got from the shoveling. We made real progress there at the man’s house, starting with a deep, drifting pile of ash, dust, dirt, and broken remains of his belongings. By the time we left, we had hit the earthen floor of what used to be his kitchen. The ash entered our eyes and mouths despite the face masks and sunglasses. There was no way to escape it.

Participating in the volunteer efforts and being around to see the ways in which Valparaiso has responded to this crisis has been uplifting and wholly inspiring. The city has come together in the truest sense of the word. People sprang into action from day one, and thank god, because there are so many victims of this fire.

And not just people victims either. Here’s an area for wounded strays — they were adopting them out once they’d been cleaned and treated.

 

 

Jorge and I after shoveling rubble last Friday. We found soot in our nostrils and ears for at least the next two days.

 

Just seeing the solidarity of the portenos each and every time I leave my house is such an insanely beautiful sight. When we went on Friday, there was no lack of support among volunteers. It didn’t matter where we were from, who we were with: we were there to help. Formalities weren’t exchanged, only directions toward where to help and gentle questions of whether we needed water or food. Water was passed around freely as we worked, mandarin oranges and then actual packed lunches handed out by some lady, who knows where she came from or who she was with, just one of the many angels of the relief efforts.

By last Friday, reconstruction had already begun for some people. This is an effort that will continue for quite a long time. Thankfully, there are so many people to help, and so many individuals and companies alike that are giving time, money and efforts to help those affected by the catastrophe.

Valpo won’t only be fine, it will be stronger and better.

FUERZA VALPO!