Fires in Valparaiso (Pt. 1)

It started off as the quintessential perfect day in Valparaiso – the sun was shining bright, not a cloud to be seen, and its colorful, picturesque hills were calling us to explore them. We set out through the foothills making it up to the lively Cerro Alegre and Cerro Conepción to take pictures, view the bay, and have some lunch in our port city.

We smelled the fire in the afternoon, and saw the smoke rolling over the hills and sprinkling ashes. A eucalyptus leaf dropped at my feet as I was snapping photos of Valparaíso’s murals and graffiti laden streets, alleys, and stair ways. We could hear the trees bursting in flames. At the time I didn’t think much of it since fires aren’t that abnormal in the area.

Early afternoon, the smoke was taking over and spreading ash.
We stopped to have a coffee in a new-found gem in Cerro Alegre and the power went out. I head one of the employees ask, ‘’Is there a fire? The power goes out when there is a fire,’’ and went about her job as usual.
Francisco and I had planned to meet his family for a movie in Viña del Mar, just a short ride along the bay. As we left Valparaíso, the sight from afar became more terrifying as the smoke became darker and heavier moving across the hills and flowing into the bay. Almost feeling like we were fleeing from the scene, I kept telling myself, ”It’ll be OK.”
Just two hours later, after frantic missed phone calls and checking the news on our phones, I began to panic seeing Twitter images of Valparaíso engulfed in flames and hearing about friends and acquaintances who have already lost their homes, all of their belongings, everything.

 

The newscasters and commentators on the radio made me even more frightened, speaking and speculating as if it were a soccer game as we pulled into Valparaíso. Frightening thoughts of not being able to make it home, of our home not being there, and having to sleep with one eye open in the midst of an uncontrollable fire lurked in my mind as we drove back to Valparaíso.
Genuinely afraid to even look towards the city, smoke and red flames creeped up behind the hills in Viña del Mar. I knew that once we made a turn, we would be able to see Valparaiso’s hills, and it sat there like a frame out of an end of days movie consumed by violent fires. All of my fears and frustration instantly turned into hopeless tears sitting next to Francisco and his family driving through the city we hold in our hearts so dearly yet utterly hopeless before it.

This is a picture of the city the night before taken from our balcony.

 

The fire didn’t spread to the hill my in-laws live in, and we were saved from my worst thoughts. Watching my city continue to burn in flames and turn to ashes from the balcony, and hearing the eucalyptus erupting, we sat somberly not able to look away from the engrossing destruction with sadness in our hearts for our fellow porteños and our city.

This is a picture of the city last night during the fire as it spread into the foothills, also taken from our balcony.

There was a blackout twice that night. I’ve never seen Valparaíso completely dark under one of the clearest skies I’ve seen in the bay, but it lit up more furiously that I had ever imagined. When I awoke to planes flying above our apartment, I thought it was over despite the embers still visible.

Taken today from our balcony, but the effected area is now without light.
Valparaíso is more than the a UNESCO World Heritage city I fell in love with 5 years ago; it is a living, breathing, cultural entity with a unique identity of its own. It wasn’t just a physical place that burned, it was thousands of people´s homes, resulting in thousands of people tragically displaced and the destruction of their environments – those people and places make Valparaíso what it is, and we lost a piece of our city with these fires. I’ve never felt so connected to a place or have been so affected by a natural disaster. That was my city in flames, my port, my family, my people here.
Fuerza, Valpo. Be strong, Valpo.

Update:

If you would like to donate goods (most places are no longer accepting clothing), volunteer, or donate money to organizations assisting the victims, please see this list of local centers.
Read part two of this post here: Fires in Valparaíso: Relief Efforts (Pt. 2), about how we volunteered at a shelter and donation center the following day.
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