SANTIAGO - Chile faces a "very difficult" season of wildfires because of high temperatures, a persistent drought and an increase in arson, Agriculture Minister Antonio Walker said on Tuesday, adding to the woes of a country damaged by violent socio-economic protests in the past month.
Firefighters have found fuel cans near some fires that have already occurred, Walker told a news conference, warning those who were found guilty of arson that they would face new, stiffer fines or up to 20 years imprisonment.
Already, approximately 1,000 fires have been registered, principally in the central region around the port of Valparaiso, compared to 491 in the whole of last year, according to figures from the National Forestry Corporation (CONAF).
"Very difficult days are coming, we are expecting very high maximum temperatures, also very strong winds. And we have not previously seen the levels of intentionality we are seeing now," Walker said.
The southern hemisphere summer season that runs between December and March could see as many as 120,000 hectares burned, the minister said.
Already since July 2019, 6,800 hectares have been affected by wildfires, CONAF figures show, more than half around Valparaiso where some residents have had to evacuate their homes. In the period July 2018 to June 2019, a total of 1,646 hectares were burned.
The Chilean government and the private sector have started a $154 million fire prevention and control plan that provides for some 6,000 firefighters and 100 aircraft.
Chile is experiencing its biggest political and economic crisis since its return to democracy in 1990 that began with protests against an increase in metro and bus fares and developed into broader calls against social injustice.
A Greenpeace spokesman, Mauricio Ceballos, said the wildfires highlighted how vulnerable Chile was to climate change. Chile was to host the COP25 United Nations climate change summit in December but was forced to cancel because of the protests and Madrid is hosting instead.
"It's clear that the environmental decline has turned into a direct threat for citizens and for that reason it's important to work decisively and at a high level to ensure things don't get worse," Ceballos said.