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Chilean Fires Create "Environmental Tragedy"

Chilean forest fires termed environmental tragedy, Feb. 27, 2002

SANTIAGO, Chile - Fires ravaging native forests in southern Chile, which had been contained last week, spread again at the weekend in what has become an "environmental tragedy," the government said.

The fires have consumed at least 131,000 acres (53,000 hectares) of land, a third of which have prized native tree species found only in Chile.

"Frankly, it's an environmental tragedy because there are many separate fires. They had been stabilized but unfortunately the meteorological conditions in the last few days made them spread beyond the barriers that we had set up initially," said government spokesman Heraldo Munoz.

The fires, which started three weeks ago, have crept into state-protected nature reserves, destroying forests of araucaria, or monkey puzzle tree, and other species found only in Chile such as lenga, coigue and rauli.

Some small farms and commercial tree plantations have also been destroyed, the state forestry agency said. Populated areas have not been affected.

"Fortunately, the fires are not affecting important urban centers. However, some farmers have lost houses and resources," Munoz said, pledging government support to the victims.

By Friday, firefighters had controlled most of the fires that have been creeping through a mountainous region about 500 miles (800 km) south of the capital.

But hot, dry weather and strong winds at the weekend set them back. It will take at least another month to fully extinguish the blazes, the government said.