Tragedy, resilience and a miracle in Chile’s burned botanical garden

On Friday afternoon, several hundred people wandered the idyllic grounds of Chile’s National Botanical Garden, mostly unaware that, just beyond some hills and a highway, a raging fire was galloping toward them.

The danger soon became clear. The rangers began racing around the park on motorbikes, shouting at visitors to flee towards the exits. But by the time many got there, the fire had already arrived.

“Thick black smoke rose above us, so we lay down on the grass just inside the gate,” Alejandro Peirano, the park director, recalled Monday morning. “One of my rangers turned to me and said, ‘Director, are we going to die?’”

Elsewhere, three other rangers were trying to rescue a colleague, Patricia Araya, 60, a greenhouse keeper who lived in the park and cared for her two grandparents and 92-year-old mother. They reached the gate of her cabin, but the fire was getting closer. “I could feel the heat ringing behind me. I realized that pieces of burnt bark were falling on me,” Freddy Sánchez, 50, who was standing guard at the park’s entrance, said Monday.

“We had to turn around,” he said. “All your body wants is to find a way out of the heat.”

The crowd huddled on the front lawn survived—a miracle of fate, as 98 percent of the garden’s nearly 1,000 acres were destroyed.

Ms Araya, her mother and her two grandparents did not, making them four of the 122 confirmed deaths in one of the deadliest fires in modern history.

Authorities with cadaver dogs continued their search Monday for bodies in the nearly 40 square miles burned by Friday’s fast-moving fires in Valparaíso province, a popular tourist area near Chile’s central coast.

They also took stock of the broader destruction, including some 15,000 homes and one of Chile’s national jewels: the National Botanical Garden of Viña del Mar, founded 107 years ago.

The botanical garden, which spans 1.5 square miles, is one of the largest in the world and is also a crucial conservation and research center for the region. Over decades, staff have built and studied a diverse garden, with more than 1,000 tree species, including some of the rarest in the world.

Due to Chile’s isolated geography, sandwiched between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, the country is home to many endemic plant species, meaning they do not appear elsewhere in the wild.

The garden has been instrumental in conserving those species, including many rare cacti. It also contains medicinal plants, exotic plants from Europe and Asia, a large collection of species from the remote Juan Fernández Islands in the Pacific, and some of the last known Sophora toromiro trees in the world, native to Rapa Nui, or Easter Island . , but they are now extinct in the wild.

“It’s a horrible loss. Years and years of research that many people have done in that garden, creating special collections,” said Noelia Alvarez de Roman, Latin America specialist at Botanic Gardens Conservation International, a global network of botanical gardens.

Peirano said the park has been damaged by fires in the past, including in 2013 and 2022, with about a quarter of the land burned. “We’re used to it. We patrol the most sensitive areas every day, clean the areas and educate people,” he said.

“But this fire was completely unexpected,” he added. “We have never seen anything on this scale.”

Peirano stressed that the lives lost were far more devastating than the physical damage. Ms. Araya had worked in the park for about 40 years and this week she was scheduled to do so hold a new wedding ceremony with his longtime partner and then go on holiday together, Mr. Peirano said in a television interview.

She had already taken time off work Friday and her grandparents, ages 1 and 9, had come to stay with her that day, she said.

Authorities reiterated Monday that they believe the fires were set intentionally.

Rodrigo Mundaca, governor of the province of Valparaíso, told journalists that authorities had established that at least one large fire broke out around 2pm on Friday in four different places, a few meters from each other.

“Does it seem to me that this could be spontaneous, natural? No,” she said, adding that national forestry workers had intentionally put out the fires the day before. “Therefore, today, I say that there is a clear intention here and we hope that the authorities can find those responsible.”

Two people were arrested on Sunday on suspicion of trying to set fires near the botanical garden, but were later released because police said they had insufficient evidence. Authorities said they will keep the nighttime curfew in place as investigations and recovery from the fires continue.

High temperatures and dry conditions before the fires created dangerous conditions in Chile. The cyclical climate phenomenon known as El Niño has contributed to heat and drought in parts of South America, and global climate change has also largely pushed temperatures up above.

Strong winds on Friday caused the fires to spread rapidly, surprising authorities and leaving many people trapped as they tried to escape hillside settlements. Firefighters had largely put out the fire by Monday.

In the botanical garden, smoke from burned eucalyptus forests still hung in the air, as workers carved up fallen trees with chainsaws and helicopters carrying huge buckets of water flew overhead. Mr. Peirano was clearly saddened, calling the charred gardens behind him “a treasure for Chileans,” but he was also determined that the forest would grow back.

“The native plants will flower again, but we will need the rains to come, and we won’t have them until May,” he said. He added that some of the garden’s exotic species also survived the inferno, just like the historic 150-year-old banyan tree in Lahaina, Hawaii, which began sprouting leaves just weeks after a fire destroyed much of the town .

Some of the surviving plants included some of Rapa Nui’s nearly extinct Sophora toromiro trees, as well as the Ginkgo biloba trees from the park’s “Garden of Peace,” which is made up of plants that survived the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, Japan.

“They had the strength to germinate after Hiroshima,” he said in a television interview Monday. “Now they will have double the strength if they get through this stage, because the fire has passed through them. The trees and what they represent will be twice as strong.”

Daniele Politi AND Giglio Moriconi contributed to the reporting.