Chileans living in the Triangle stunned by wildfires destroying Chile

Sean Coffey Image
Wednesday, February 7, 2024
Chileans living in the Triangle stunned by deadly wildfires
"It was like my country was in a war," a Garner woman with roots in Chile said.

GARNER, N.C. (WTVD) -- The Triangle's Chilean community is shocked by the South American country's worst crisis in more than a decade.

Recent wildfires in Chile have killed at least 123 people with hundreds more missing. The fires have damaged at least 15,000 homes-especially near the coastal cities of Valparaiso and Vina del Mar.

The fires have been burning with the highest intensity around the city of Viña del Mar, where a famous botanical garden founded in 1931 was destroyed by the flames.

"It was like my country was in a war," Thamara Fernandez said. "It was crazy. The cars, the streets, the people, the houses. The landscape, everything, it was burned. It was very, very sad."

She moved to the U.S. from Santiago in 1998.

Fernandez runs iSigns and Graphics in Garner, and still has family in the areas near the wildfires. So does Jorge Morales, who started the Chilean catering service Jorgito's a few years back.

"My dad has three brothers there; his mom's there," Morales said. "So, they've been calling every day too making sure everything's OK and praying for them."

Morales said his uncle -- a bus driver in Valparaiso -- lost his job after city buses went up in flames. He said he's just riding out the emotional whirlwind for now.

"It's just a sad scene, because they're literally right next door, the city right next door," he said. "So they can see everything, and they're hoping and praying like 'Oh my god, I hope it doesn't affect us.'"

Andrea Azocar lives on the coast of Chile, just a few miles from the worst of the wildfires. She's the cousin of ABC11 reporter Sean Coffey, and spoke with ABC11 for added perspective on what's happening.

"This is the working class," said Azocar. "You know, people that with so much effort got to get their own place and got fires."

As the blazes continue, she hopes her country can start to heal soon.

"Kids have to go to school, they don't have clothes, they don't have their uniforms, their materials to go -- it's so difficult to start over from scratch. It's a lot of people damaged," Azocar said.

Chile has declared a state of emergency due to the wildfires, and officials have called it the worst disaster since an 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck the country in 2010.

The initial spark of the wildfires remains under investigation. Police in Chile are trying to determine if it was set intentionally.