The world’s biggest aerial firefighting aircraft has joined beleaguered firefighters in Chile as they battle the worst wildfires in the country’s recent history.
More than 90 blazes have scorched 180,000 hectares, razed hundreds of homes, turned village schools to ashes and destroyed cattle herds and vineyards.
A prolonged campaign to extinguish the flames has claimed four firefighters’ lives, but the forestry service said 35 fires remain out of control
The government has dispatched more than 40 helicopters and light aircraft to douse the ground, but its efforts have been criticised as inadequate, particularly since the director of the forestry service admitted half its aircraft are out of operation.
Firefighters have taken to the airwaves to appeal for planes to help combat the fire in remote regions.
Chilean president Michelle Bachelet visited the community of Empedrado in Maule, one of the worst affected regions, where she faced a barrage of questions from locals who were angry at what they saw as the slow response of the authorities.
“I understand there is pain and rage,” the president said. “We have never seen anything on this scale, never in the history of Chile. The truth is that the forces are doing everything humanly possible and will continue until they can contain and control the fires.”
Her government declared a state of emergency last week and requested international assistance to cope with the fire
Help has come from France, Peru, Mexico and the US. The most visible sign of support arrived on Wednesday morning in the form of a Boeing 747-400 supertanker, which flew in from a US air force base in Colorado on a fire-fighting operation funded to the tune of about $2m by a wealthy Chilean resident in the US, Lucy Ana Aviles
With the capacity to carry 73,000 litres of water, local media say a single run by the jumbo is equivalent to that of 72 helicopter and 20 light aircraft missions.
However, there are questions about its effectiveness in the small mountain valleys where many of the fires are raging.
The government has granted permission for two days of test flights. Representatives of the company that own the plane cautioned that it was “not a magic wand”, but could complement the work of fire brigades on the ground.
Soon after arrival in Chile, the giant plane was loaded with water and fire-suppressing foam and gels and sent on its first mission to the Maule region, where the latest fire-fighting fatality occurred hours earlier.
Hernán Avilés González was killed rescuing a family of three who had been trapped in their rural home in Santa Olga. The inhabitants were saved, but the fireman – who had been battling the blaze for several days – became entangled in wires and fell victim to the flames.
Reporting on his death, the Constitutión mayor Carlos Valenzuela told reporters. “This is a real hell. We are absolutely overtaken.”
Evacuations have saved other lives, but the fires have so far left 256 people without homes and ruined countless livelihoods