Homes and hearts rebuilt in wake of huge city fire

19th May 2014

Child survivors of the fires that razed 10 Chilean hill neighbourhoods a month ago will have the chance to relax and express their feelings through a children’s programme run by ACT.

Working through activity books titled ‘My Fire’, children aged six to 10 will soon be able to tell their own stories of the devastating fire through art.

The programme falls under the psychosocial work being led by ACT member Fundación Educación Popular en Salud (EPES), which heads the US$167,660 ACT appeal for survivors of Valparaiso.

“A lot of children have been sent to live in the city or elsewhere,” said Karen Anderson, director of EPES International Training Program and ELCA Global Mission Personnel in Chile. “As the communities rebuilding the emergency homes, the children will start coming back.” With the support of health professionals, students will identify children living on the hill and in homes, and the conditions in which they live.

“Their workbooks will then let them tell the story of all they have gone through. The facilitators talk about their families, and there’s a page with different faces and expressions so they can talk about how they feel, what they are worried about.”

The fire that consumed 3000 homes and caused damage to another 15,500 on the night of April 12, started when a forest fire spread to poor neighbourhoods.  It killed 15. It was not the first time the neighbourhood had been engulfed by out-of-control fires.

Neighbourhood looked like a ‘bomb had dropped’

The ACT appeal will support some 1855 people. One part of the programme aims to improve facilities at a popular community centre that has become the hub for locals, serving as an aid distribution site. It offers showers, food and relief goods and volunteers give advice.

Las Cañas Community Center also has a dining hall that serves 300 lunches each day, and has become a focal point for residents to organise themselves and demand their rights. “The centre is a very basic building but it’s wonderful to have these courageous young volunteers working here. This is the base from which the response is carried out,” Anderson said.

The rooms are filled with household goods: toiletries, soap, food for 300 a day and clothing is stored under makeshift tents outside.

“Living on the hill, 80 per cent of the volunteers lost their homes. After the fire, it looked like a bomb had been dropped, all the houses were wiped out and burnt. Now there’s enormous frustration about what’s happening, and they wonder whether their voices will be heard in the process of rebuilding. They don’t want to rebuild under the same inequitable, pre-fire socio-economic conditions. Will they have enough voice to oppose buildings made of hazardous materials, in a way that’s sustainable and gives the people the dignity that they believe they and their neighbours deserve? These young people angry, passionate and saw the fire as completely preventable. “

Community leaders too were angry they hadn’t been listened to, having brought many concerns before the government about the dangers of the houses on the hill. “They feel they will have to work hard with the nine other worst affected hills to build a stronger advocacy voice – one that involves communities in a much more sustainable and participatory way,” Anderson said.

Another aspect of the work will be carried out by another ACT member, CREAS, which will work with women, encouraging them to make their voices heard in the reconstruction process. Another component of the work will be ensuring homes for up to 1200 people are warm enough for the upcoming winter.

Anderson said the recovery process would be long. “The fire exposed the enormous poverty, inequality and lack of urban planning that affects Valparaiso. With over 3000 homes destroyed, 12,500 damaged over 10 hills, it is going to take a long time to really rebuild. Hopefully with a participatory process that includes the voices and vision of the communities themselves.”

Residents living precarious existence

Survivors are forced to live a precarious existence, on their former properties, in tents or shacks of corrugated tin and boards rescued from the fire. The first emergency dwellings lacked water proofing. As the winter cold and rains set in, the now-bare hillsides, which lack vegetation to contain the soil, also face the threat of landslides. Lack of running water, poor nutrition and cold weather will heighten people’s susceptibility to illness.

People who live in land occupations in the ravines are even more vulnerable. These communities live in constant fear of being evicted or not receiving the same benefits as those who have deeds to their properties.

Volunteers were the lifeblood of the emergency. Thousands of volunteers and community organizations from throughout the country responded to the emergency. Volunteers were essential in the process of clearing a great amount of the debris and organised solidarity drives to collect food, clothing, personal hygiene items and other basic, urgent supplies. Today, few of the 15,000 volunteers who worked in the initial weeks after the fire are to be seen, yet families still need support to prepare the ground for installing emergency dwellings. Trucks do not go up the hills, so the pre-fab wooden panels for the emergency housing units must be brought up in any way people can.

Residents complain that government officials are absent on the damaged hillside neighborhoods and have not solved the most pressing problems. Moreover, there is no information about how to apply for the promised emergency assistance funds.


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