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Forecast podcast: Hundreds dead or missing as wildfires devastate Chile

Heavy smoke from a wildfire over lightly vegetated rough hills. There are no clouds in the blue sky.

Editors Jimmy Lovaas and Jaime Calle Moreno discuss the devastating wildfires in Chile, plus more on Lunar New Year celebrations in China, a presidential election in Indonesia, the presidents of Turkey and Egypt meeting and a security conference in Munich, Germany.

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These stories and others are also available in our free weekly Forecast newsletter.

This episode was produced with work from Factal editors Jaime Calle Moreno, Joe Veyera, Irene Villora, Agnese Boffano and Jess Fino Produced and edited by Jimmy Lovaas, with additional writing by Sophie Perryer. Music courtesy of Andrew Gospe.

Have feedback, suggestions or events we’ve missed? Drop us a note: hello@factal.com


Factal Forecast podcast transcript

This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.

JIMMY LOVAAS, HOST:

Welcome to the Factal Forecast, a look at the week’s biggest stories and what they mean from the editors at Factal. I’m Jimmy Lovaas.

Today is February 8th.

In this week’s forecast we’ve got the devastating wildfires in Chile, Lunar New Year celebrations in China, a presidential election in Indonesia, the presidents of Turkey and Egypt meeting and a security conference in the German city of Munich. 

You can also read about these stories and more in our weekly newsletter, which you can find a link to in the show notes.

Chile wildfires

Information compiled by Jaime Calle Moreno

JIMMY: Up first, we’ll take a look at the wildfires wreaking havoc in Chile. For more on that I’ve got fellow Factal editor Jaime Calle Moreno.

JIMMY: Hello, Jaime. 

JAIME: Hi there, Jimmy. How’s it going?

JIMMY: Good. It’s, well, good that you’re here. It’s summertime in Chile, which unfortunately means it’s also fire season there. Hoping you can tell us a little bit about it.

JAIME: Yeah, of course, Jimmy. So, for the majority of the season, which typically starts around the end of November or so, we’ve seen a relatively calm wildfire season in Chile, in particular, with some evacuations ordered here and there, but no, kind of, major incidents around population areas, especially. Now, that all came to a stop last week, Friday, when several wildfires broke out in the Valparaiso region, specifically near Viña del Mar, Quilpue, and Valparaiso town itself, along the coast. So, very strong winds and high temperatures caused the fires to grow at a devastating pace. In barely, mere minutes, I think around 10, the fire started encompassing areas near Placilla, which is south of Valparaiso, the, kind of, eastern neighborhoods of Viña del Mar, which is quite close to it, and the western areas of Quilpue as well as, kind of, the eastern side of Villa Alemana, which is also just kind of east of Quilpue. So, all in a very, very small surface area. Now, Jimmy, I don’t know if you’ve seen the videos or witness statements coming from Valparaiso residents, but they’re absolutely terrifying to watch and hear. The strong winds effectively created quite a brutal firestorm with embers coming from all sides near population areas, which ended up burning I think more than 24,000 acres in, kind of, the following days, since Friday. So those fires alone up until now have left at least 131 people killed, with the number expected to rise as search and rescue operations continue for dozens more that remain missing – more than 100 at least. By the death toll alone, it’s the worst catastrophe since the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit central Chile in 2010. That’s of course not the only area being affected by wildfires. Currently, there’s, kind of, as of today, there’s another 19 active wildfires aside from Valparaiso that remain under combat. And these are kind of spread across Los Lagos, Araucania, BioBio, O’Higgins and the Maule legions which kind of spread across Chile’s narrow landscape. So we are by no means out of the woods just yet.

JIMMY: And what’s the latest? How are things going right now?

JAIME: Well, damage assessment is still ongoing in the various areas hit by the fires, in particular in Valparaiso, and, kind of, latest estimates indicate that another 6,000 homes are yet to be assessed for damage, which is adding to the likely 15,000 that have been damaged so far. The fires in Valparaiso are, kind of, mostly under some control, so there aren’t major fronts opening up in the diverse locations of it. But there’s, kind of, rather, some hotspots in the already vast area burnt, so the major issue now is, kind of, the search and rescue operations and the eventual redevelopment that the towns are gonna practically need. It – unfortunately, it still remains the case, though, that because of the several wildfires, and other regions that I mentioned, continue to burn in large areas. I mean, we’ve even seen some in neighboring Argentina, just across the border, with a wildfire in Los Alerces national park, in the country’s northern Patagonia, going up to 15,000 acres at least. So, fires are still raging and causing evacuations in places that I mentioned, like Los Lagos, Maule, and Araucania. And now, it’s kind of being able to diversify the emergency resources and crews so that, you know, there’s no other kind of major incidents like this that happened in other areas. But, in particular, the Valparaiso fires have relatively calmed since Friday’s initial onset, but yeah, there’s still that risk that other regions are going to be affected by other wildfires to a certain degree.

JIMMY: What’s the government response to these fires been like? Any concerns? 

JAIME: I mean, it’s hard to respond to fires that grow this quickly. There’s really not much you can do. It’s, you know, President Gabriel Boric announced a state of emergency shortly after, effectively deploying the military for both firefighting efforts as well as search and rescue. And the government imposed curfews in affected villages and towns, which, in turn, in some ways helped clear roads and avenues for firefighters as well as, really most importantly, facilitate further evacuations if needed at a very rapid pace. The government, now, is thinking of imposing a daytime curfew as well, but that remains to be seen, really. The important bit now is, as I mentioned, diversifying those levels of resources placed in each region as more wildfires prop out in other areas, right, so that ground and aerial crews can reach locations quickly to try to limit the amount of damage that these winds and fires can produce. Now, to cut the government a little bit of slack here, this particular area is extremely hilly, which makes firefighting efforts that much harder and makes the fire grow quicker through something called the “chimney effect”, which only adds to the fact that it’s a high-population density with buildings made of very light material that easily catch fire. And on top of that, very strong winds kind of up to 80 kilometers, or 50 miles an hour, higher temperatures, I think 37 degrees Celsius, or in Fahrenheit around 99, which is quite rare for the area. This is also added on to low humidity. It makes it really difficult to combat fires in these three or four locations that spread quickly, that if you add on to that, as well as the previous drought that large parts of the South Cone experienced, it really tops it off to put in place kind of the perfect storm for a fire to grow. And it’s very difficult for a government to preventively act when such a fire grows in a matter of 15 or 20 minutes, right?

JIMMY: Well, what’s on the horizon? What should folks be watching for next you think?

JAIME: So, it’s undoubtedly the case, Jimmy, that the death toll, level of structural damage will only increase as search and rescue operations continue in those affected areas in Valparaiso, specifically, mostly Viña del Mar and also Quilpué. To what extent the increase will be is unclear, but the damage here has really already been done. The wildfire season, though, is by no means over and risk remains high in several areas in the Southern Macrozone, namely BioBio, Araucania, Los Lagos and Los Rios and outside of the Macrozone. Also in Maule, where in some of them we already have evacuation orders and large deployment of crews battling active wildfires currently. With these wildfires, it’s unfortunately the case that it only really takes one, right, with the right conditions to cause significant levels of destruction like we’ve seen with this one. So I’d definitely watch for more wildfires to prop up in other regions. And just to add to that, I think wildfires in Chile have been a growing concern as they really only seem to get worse as record temperatures keep getting hit. I mean, initially the season in 2017 was bad enough. I mean, then we had last year’s wildfire season, which also saw a large number of deaths and injuries, which actually occurred in the same place in Valparaíso and Viña del Mar. But it’s got nowhere near this level of destruction from this year. And like I said, higher temperatures and dry conditions are what kind of El Nino’s weather phenomenon is bringing to the South Cone in general. We’re in a period now of El Nino which is set to last for the whole year, which brings higher temperature and drier conditions to the South Cone in general. And if that’s the case, we’re expecting this wildfire season not to really end in the typical timeframe, which is generally in the next few weeks, and so we’re expecting to see more of this unfortunately.

JIMMY: Well, Jaime, we’ll stop there for now, but thank you so much for your time. Always appreciate it. Appreciate you catching us up to speed.

JAIME: No problem, Jimmy. Thanks for having me.

Lunar New Year

Information compiled by Joe Veyera

JIMMY: Travel in and out of mainland China is expected to surpass pre-pandemic levels for the first time ahead of Lunar New Year on Saturday.

Chūnyùn, as it’s known in China, is the 40-day period around Lunar New Year when millions of people return to their hometowns to celebrate with their families.

Last year was the first holiday since nationwide pandemic restrictions were lifted, but a new wave of coronavirus infections prevented some people from traveling.

Now, this year, immigration authorities say an average of 1.8 million trips per day will be made in and out of the mainland 

The Chinese Ministry of Transport estimates a total of nine billion trips will be made over the 40-day period as a whole, with the vast majority made by car.

However, travel could be disrupted by bad weather conditions, especially in central and eastern regions of China.

Thousands of people have been trapped on highways in recent days due to snow and ice. Train services and flights have also been disrupted in the Hubei, Hunan and Shanghai regions.

Indonesia presidential election

Information compiled by Irene Villora

JIMMY: Indonesians will go to the polls Wednesday to select a new president as Joko Widodo leaves office after 10 years in power.

About 204 million people are eligible to vote, with most aged between 17 and 40.

Widodo cannot stand for a third term due to constitutional limits, but his son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, is running to become vice-president.

The Constitutional Court had to make a special exception to allow him to run, as usually candidates under the age of 40 can’t join a presidential ticket.

Raka’s running mate and the electoral frontrunner is the current Defense Minister Parabowo Subianto. The two are running on a continuity platform to see through Widodo’s infrastructure and economic development policies.

Also contesting the race are former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan and his running mate Muhaimin Iskandar, the leader of Indonesia’s biggest Islamic party. 

The duo are pledging to overturn some of Widodo’s policies, like moving the capital from Jakarta onto the island of Borneo, as they say the investment could be better spent elsewhere.

Aside from the economy and infrastructure development, the key issues of the election are expected to be employment, general welfare and the state of democracy in Indonesia.

A runoff election will be held in June if no candidate secures more than 50% of the vote.

Turkish and Egyptian Presidents to meet in Cairo

Information compiled by Agnese Boffano

JIMMY: Also on Wednesday, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Egyptian counterpart Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi will meet in the Egyptian capital Cairo.

This will be Erdogan’s first visit to Egypt since a military coup more than a decade ago.

Relations soured between the two countries in 2013 when the Egyptian military, led by el-Sissi, removed the Turkish-backed President Mohamed Morsi.

Both recalled their ambassadors shortly afterwards and Egypt accused Turkey of endorsing “Islamist extremism” for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.

The two countries are now on friendlier terms, having resumed diplomatic relations and restored their ambassadors in 2021. 

According to Turkey’s foreign minister, Erdogan and el-Sissi are expected to discuss bilateral issues including energy, security and trade.

Turkey has also agreed to supply Egypt with drones, which are already in use in conflicts in Libya, Syria and Ukraine.

Munich Security Conference

Information compiled by Jess Fino

JIMMY: Hundreds of global decision-makers will gather in the German city of Munich next Friday. They’re meeting for a three-day conference on international security policy.

More than 100 government ministers and 50 world leaders are expected to attend the event.

Iranian and Russian officials have not been invited, as the organizers of the conference said other attendees would not be interested in speaking to their representatives.

Russia was also excluded last year over the war in Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin said Russia would be happy to negotiate, but not with the current Ukrainian government, which conference organizers said did not show a serious willingness to talk.

Some German political parties, including the far-right Alternative for Germany, have also been excluded.

The organizer of this year’s event has also called on U.S. President Joe Biden to take a tough stance against Israel and call on the Israeli government to respect international law amid the war in Gaza.

JIMMY: As always, thank you for listening to the Factal Forecast. We publish our forward-looking podcast and newsletter each Thursday to help you get a jump-start on the week ahead. Please subscribe and review wherever you find your podcasts. We’d love it if you’d consider telling a friend about us.  

Today’s episode was produced with work from Factal editors Joe Veyera, Irene Villora, Agnese Boffano and Jess Fino. Our interview featured editor Jaime Calle Moreno and our podcast is produced and edited by me – Jimmy Lovaas, with additional writing by Sophie Perryer. Our music comes courtesy of Andrew Gospe.

Until next time, if you have any feedback, suggestions or events we’ve missed, drop us a note by emailing hello@factal.com

This transcript may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability not guaranteed. 

Copyright © 2024 Factal. All rights reserved.

Music: ‘Factal Theme’ courtesy of Andrew Gospe

Top photo: Chilean President Gabriel Boric flew Feb. 3 over areas affected by the forest fires in the Valparaíso region. (Photo: Press Directorate, Presidency of the Republic of Chile)

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