VALPARAISO, Chile (AP) — President Michelle Bachelet vowed Tuesday to reconstruct this once-beautiful port city according to a master plan that would prevent many of the 12,500 victims of devastating wildfires from rebuilding on hills that cannot be protected from disasters.
The fires that started Saturday and leaped from hilltop to densely populated hilltop may take 20 days to extinguish, Chile's forestry agency said. While Interior Minister Rodrigo Penailillo said authorities hope to have them fully controlled by Wednesday, every stiff wind threatened to lift burning embers, putting more neighborhoods at risk.
By Tuesday night, the fires had consumed 2,900 homes and killed 15 people while injuring hundreds more, he said.
"We think this is a tremendous tragedy, but ... it is also a tremendous opportunity to do things right," Bachelet said in an interview with El Diario de Cooperativa. "What we're looking at in terms of reconstruction is how to rebuild in a more orderly manner, better and more worthy" of Valparaiso's status as a World Heritage City.
UNESCO granted the city that honor in large part because of its unique architecture, laid out on narrow, curving streets that climb hills so steep that many people commute by climbing stairways or riding cable cars. Brightly painted, improvised wooden houses hug forested hills and ravines, which form a natural amphitheater around Chile's second-largest port.
While the city is often blanketed by fog from the Pacific Ocean, it has been plagued throughout history by wildfires that can spread quickly when the wind blows out to sea. Indigenous Changos who lived there before the Spanish conquest called the area "Alimapu," which means "land destroyed by fire," said Orion Aramayo, an urban planning expert at Valparaiso's Catholic University.
While fire victims include middle-class families, thousands more lived in primitive conditions, sharing structures built on tiny ledges of land carved into the hills. Many of these homes were built illegally, lacking water and sewer connections, with improper foundations on dangerous slopes and no way for emergency vehicles to reach them in a crisis.
With so many houses reduced to rubble and 4.2 square miles (1,090 hectares) of the compact city's forests turned to ash, Chileans debated about whether bulldozers might help solve longstanding problems.
Urban planners called for safer structures, wider streets and better infrastructure. Some cultural representatives expressed concerns that new construction could endanger the city's rich character. And thousands of fire victims returned to their home sites on the hills, squatting amid charred rubble on denuded slopes that could turn to landslides in the next rain.
Many experts blame the Chilean state for decades of uncontrolled growth.
"The government is responsible for having allowed homes to be built in dangerous areas, and somehow it has to show these people that they're in a place where their lives are at risk," said architecture professor Jonas Figueroa at the University of Santiago.
Valparaiso Mayor Jorge Castro bemoaned the city's disorderly development Sunday, saying that "we are too vulnerable as a city: We have been the builders and architects of our own dangers." By Monday, he was acknowledging that many people would rebuild in the same vulnerable spots.
Bachelet, however, appeared firm in Tuesday's interview.
"Protecting the people comes first. And second, relocating them," she said, suggesting that the state will expropriate land if it has to. "Honestly, I believe we have to do something more. It's not enough to reinstall houses or support families. We have to do something more substantive."
Just 34 days after taking office a second time, Bachelet is confronting twin disasters. Two earthquakes in northern Chile left 2,635 homes uninhabitable, and 5,000 more with lesser damage. She said the reconstruction will likely occupy her entire four-year term.
Housing Minister Paulina Saball avoided saying openly where the evacuees would go. She suggested that camps for evacuees would have to be built elsewhere to house people who had been illegally squatting on unstable land.
"They want to keep living here. The people don't want to leave," said Nancy Ortega, a social worker who has spent decades assisting about 100 families in Cuesta Colorada, a neighborhood on the Ramaditas hilltop that was mostly destroyed.
Many people were already leaving the city's overflowing shelters and retaking their ruins. Hundreds of volunteers helped, climbing through the wreckage with bottles of water and shovels.
"We're going to rebuild right here. Where else would we go?" said Carolina Ovando, 22, who lost the humble home where she had lived with three small children.
All of Valparaiso remained under military rule Tuesday. About 5,000 firefighters, police, forest rangers, soldiers, sailors and civil defense workers joined the fight against the wildfires, which the forestry agency said could take 20 days to fully extinguish. More than 20 helicopters and airplanes flew overhead, dropping water on the smoldering ruins.