HA 014: Building with Ashes

Living with the forest fires of Valparaiso

Words and images by Adriana Thomasa | WebsiteInstagram

Forest fires are frequent in Valparaiso, Chile. Every year during the summer season a large number of fires occur in the region, many of them near inhabited sectors, devastating entire populations. Already in 2014 and 2017 Alimapu (which means "burned land" in Mapudungun, the indigenous Mapuche people’s name for Valparaíso’s bay) saw its hills burned and more than 2,500 (2014) and 250 (2017) homes destroyed. The last major fire that reached populated areas occurred on December 24, 2019, originating at a property in the upper part of Valparaíso and destroying more than 300 homes.

Myriad factors contribute to the cyclical fires in Valparaiso’s forgotten hills and ravines. Institutional abandonment of peripheral areas; the presence of exotic timber species such as pine and eucalyptus in old forest plantations that now sit unmanaged; a lack of strong public policies on fire prevention; and weather conditions conducive to forest fire spread (strong winds and high temperatures in a region affected by drought) all play a role.

This work documents the rebuilding process for Claudio Gallardo and his mom, Ana Soto — a family that lost everything in the last Valparaíso fire (December 24, 2019) — as they worked to make their home liveable before the arrival of winter and in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, all while waiting for a permanent home promised by the state. The family is still waiting to receive their new home.

View of a burned slope in the upper part of Rocuant Hill. The fire started on the afternoon of December 24th on land near the urban limits and spread to populated areas of Rocuant, Ramaditas and San Roque hills, affecting at least 300 houses and 100 hectares of grasslands and shrubs. In Valparaíso, the occurrence of forest fires during the summer season is very high, generating a constant threat to the surrounding population.
Claudio Gallardo (40) and his mother Ana Soto (70), pose for a portrait in a small room built temporarily after the fire. The family had been living in the house for 40 years, which was built by Claudio's father.
Claudio Gallardo, born and raised in Rocuant, looks at his burned home. After the fire, the family decided to stay on their land to gradually rebuild their home while waiting for the final homes promised by the State. With the help of family, friends and individuals, they received furniture and utensils for the home. Claudio says that when the mega-fire of 2014 occurred - which affected 7 hills in the city including Rocuant - the fire was also about to reach his house.
Detail of a burned wall. Claudio was sleeping in a tent for at least two months to take care of the land until he worked on a roof and could get a bed. His room still smells like smoke from the fire.
Ana Soto does the laundry in the yard during quarantine. The COVID-19 pandemic came when the family was beginning to rebuild their home for temporary shelter.
View of the passage that leads to the Gallardo Soto house in the Ladera Sur sector of Rocuant. The hills of Valparaíso are characterized by very narrow and steep streets that are often difficult to access for firefighters. The low water pressure in these sectors is also a problem in fire fighting.
Ana Soto prepares tea in her room. She says that she had never experienced something like this fire in her life. When she saw the fire coming to the house she was shocked and it was difficult for her to leave her home. It was very painful for her to lose everything. “I was the only one who was here, I didn't want to leave, I thought ‘why do I have to go if I have all my things here, all the things that have cost me, why does the fire have to take them away?’ It was an incredible thing.”
Claudio observes the landscape through the window after a rainy day. One of the main concerns for the family was keeping the house as insulated as possible to protect from the rains and the cold. In this winter season, the rains in Valparaíso were infrequent but very intense, causing water to leak into the house.
View of the house rebuilt with light materials such as wood and brass. With the help of family members and in the midst of the pandemic, Claudio has spent almost six months rebuilding his home every day without rest so that his family has a place to live and shelter from the winter as soon as possible while they wait for the final homes promised by the state.