Park at World's Southern Tip Recovers from Chile Fire
TORRES DEL PAINE, Chile It took a month and 800 firefighters to put out an immense wildfire earlier this year in remote southern Chile's Torres del Paine national park, world renowned for its awe-inspiring granite spires and glaciers.
Now, near the southern tip of the world where the growing season is compressed into a few months, authorities have begun the long process of helping nature heal from the park's worst fire in decades, started when a Czech tourist's camp burner blew over.
Tourism officials, meanwhile, are assuring nervous tour operators from France to Japan that Chile's most famous park is still a rugged backpackers' paradise. Tourism pumps an estimated $75 million a year into Chile's extreme south.
"Something that man caused, man can also fix," said Marco Cordero, regional director for Conaf, Chile's forest service.
Immediate concerns are that erosion could alter the park's brilliant turquoise lakes, invasive plant species could gain a foothold or endangered wildlife could be forced outside the park's protective boundaries to forage for food.
As a token of goodwill, the Czech government contributed about $185,500 toward the recovery, which is expected to cost $7 million.
Preserving this pristine hinterland in the heart of Patagonia, a loosely defined region that encompasses southernmost Chile and Argentina, is about more than aesthetics.
"Tourism for the Magellan region is one of the main sources of revenue," said Miguel Angel, regional director for Chile's Sernatur tourism department.
Torres del Paine is Chilean Patagonia's headline attraction, but the Straits of Magellan, Tierra del Fuego, Cape Horn and Antarctica are other popular destinations.
Most that journey to this far-flung, glacier-encrusted region expect to encounter its legendary wind. It forces trees to grow sideways and has merited a mention by every prominent chronicler to pass through in the last 500 years.
The wind frustrated the efforts of firefighters gathered from all over Chile and Argentina to put down the fast-moving blaze, which seemed to send fingers out in all directions.
Authorities point out that only a fraction of the park burned -- 45 square miles of 935 square miles total -- and this was more than a mile from the park's signature spires, which jut from plains in a cluster like a prairie Atlantis.
Still the damage is startling. Travelers on the park's easternmost road drop over a hill to find themselves suddenly surrounded by a barren moonscape. In sections, charred ground stretches for as far as the eye can see.
The fire, which began Feb. 17, hit at the peak of the park's four-month tourist season, which starts in December, the middle of the southern-hemisphere summer.
Tourism officials say they have not seen a unusual dip in visitors, which number about 100,000 a year from 80 different countries. As a precaution, they put the word out at travel fairs around the globe that Torres del Paine is still very much worth the trip.
ABOUNDS WITH WILDLIFE
Native people believed the peaks, which soar as high as 10,000 feet, were warriors turned to stone by an evil spirit. Starting in the early 1900s the surrounding land, cursed by many a settler as worthless, was used for ranching, until 1959 when it was declared a national park. Tourism started to hit its stride in the '90s.
Outside Patagonia's protected areas large sheep farms still operate and overgrazing of the pampa is a major concern of environmental groups. The wildfire that devastated Torres del Paine also burned 15 square miles of adjacent private ranchland.
The park abounds with wildlife -- ostrich-like nandu, Andean condors, llama-like guanaco, Austral parakeets, flamingos, puma and the endangered huemul, a member of the deer family. The only known fatalities of the fire were a handful of guanaco.
The first stage of the 12-year fire recovery plan involves filling in trenches, dug as a barriers to contain the fire; building dikes to prevent erosion; and collecting seeds to use for reseeding next season. The government is compensating ranchers whose land is being grazed by displaced wildlife.
Although Czech tourist Jiri Smitak has said he deeply regrets the fire, many Chileans were incensed that he only received a $200 fine. Lawmakers called for tougher penalties and the State Defense Council filed a suit against Smitak seeking damages.
National pride in the park runs deep but since it is not connected to the rest of Chile by road, the park is expensive to reach and only about a third of Torres del Paine visitors are Chilean. Most come from the United States or European countries. Visitors fly in to an airport about a four-hour drive south of the park.
Cordero said various organizations from around the globe have offered to help with funds or expertise.
"For the whole world, Torres del Paine park is something of an emblem," he said.