From: By Fiona Ortiz, Reuters
Published February 23, 2005 12:00 AM

Tourists Evacuated as Chilean Park Fire Burns

SANTIAGO, Chile — Wildfires raged in Chile's renowned Torres del Paine national park for a sixth day Wednesday, forcing officials to evacuate tourists from some areas and igniting a debate over fire-prevention laws.

The fire, set accidentally by a tourist in an unauthorized campground, has burned more than 28,000 acres of grassland and forests, while smoke has obscured views of the park's distinctive granite spires and driven llama-like guanacos and ostrich-like nandues from the area.

The most popular parts of the park, also known for spectacular glaciers, are still open. But dozens of tourists have been moved from areas near the fire, said Claudio Perez, spokesman for the government's National Forestry Corporation.

Chile draws thousands of visitors every year to the natural beauty of its dramatic Andes mountain range and long Pacific coastline.

The Czech tourist who set the fire paid the maximum fine of $200 and was allowed to leave the country.

The fine is too light given the "irresponsible actions that seriously damage our heritage," Jose Ignacio Letamendi, president of the Chilean Wood Corp. industry group, said in an opinion piece in La Tercera newspaper Thursday.

Letamendi also said the government does not spend enough to prevent fires, which he said destroyed 25,000 acres of forestry plantations and 17,000 acres of native forests last year.

"The fine seems out of proportion and ridiculous for a something the government is going to have to spend some $2.6 million to fight. But the law that exists has been applied," National Emergency Office Director Alberto Maturana told reporters.

The government has been working for more than a year on a new law that will include heavier sanctions for people who start fires, Agriculture Minister Arturo Barrera said during a visit to the fire zone this week.

Some 700 firefighters, police and soldiers, including many from Argentina -- the park is on the border -- are fighting the fire, the park's worst in more than 20 years, Barrera said.

The strong winds that are typical this time of year in the Patagonia region where the park is located, combined with an unusually hot and dry summer and steep terrain, all have complicated efforts to fight the fire.

"There's no outlook for strong rain. The fire is pretty erratic and hard to predict because of the strong winds. We have no estimated date for containing it," Perez said.


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