31 Dec 2011

Firefighters battle wildfire in Patagonia

10:06 pm on 31 December 2011

Chilean firefighters are trying to contain a massive wildfire that has ravaged thousands of hectares of pristine Patagonia and forced authorities to close a popular national park.

High winds fanned the blaze at the Torres del Paine National Park, a 2,400 sq km paradise of mountains, glaciers, natural forests and lakes in southern Chile.

The park is visited by more than 100,000 people every year.

After meeting emergency officials struggling to get a grip on the inferno, President Sebastian Pinera announced the park would remain shut throughout January.

Some 11,000 hectares of woodland and scrub, representing nearly 4% of the total area of the park, has already been destroyed by the blaze, which more than quadrupled in size in less than 24 hours.

The Chilean government has deployed four planes and a helicopter to the remote mountainous region, where 300 firefighters, soldiers and forest rangers were engaged in a desperate effort to get the blaze under control.

Hundreds of soldiers, four planes and a helicopter have been deployed. Argentina is also sending assistance.

Late December is peak season for hikers in the park. A bush fire in 2005 destroyed 160 square km of parkland in Torres del Paine.