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Latin America Studies Professor’s Magazine Essay Reflects on Recent Chilean Fire

April 24, 2014

Martland At Map

Expert On Chilean History: Humanities and Social Sciences Professor Samuel Martland is familiar with the Chilean region of Valparaiso, which suffered widespread destruction when a forest fire swept through the city on April 12-13. (Photo by Shawn Spence)

An essay by Rose-Hulman History and Latin American Studies Professor Samuel Martland, PhD, has provided context from the history of Chilean and world cities to a fire on April 12-13 that destroyed 2,900 homes and killed more than a dozen people in Valparaiso, Chile.

Martland’s essay was published this week in the Santiago (Chile) Fire Department’s online magazine. It uses his historical research and items gained from historian colleagues to analyze lessons learned from the devastating incident.

Martland offers the following insight about why five hilltop neighborhoods suffered such great devastation, even though Valparaíso and neighboring cities sent their well-trained firefighters and quality firefighting equipment:

“First, they lacked the other ingredients of a fire-safe city:  ample water supply, good access roads, and strict building codes for dense areas like these,” he explains. “Second, they were attacked by a wind-driven forest fire of the kind that has similar effects in the urban-rural interfaces of Southern California and some other U.S. regions fairly often.”

Martland continued, “The fire burned into the edge of the city along a front up to a mile wide, with flames more than 30 feet tall in some places. Thirteen hundred firefighters and a change in the wind eventually saved most of the city, whose people are now organizing relief and considering how to build safer neighborhoods quickly and fairly.”

Two centuries of urban development in Valparaiso has left a lag in fire safety between parts of the city, partly along lines of wealth and poverty, says Martland. A “lower city” is more modern and safer, reaching approximately 100 feet into the hills that make up the city’s landscape. Meanwhile, the “upper city” consists partly of homes built with wood and other light materials by poor squatters who take over unoccupied land and live there permanently, and partly of more substantial homes belonging to middle-class residents.

“These two types of construction and ownership overlap in some neighborhoods, combined with a lack of hydrants and difficult access, makes the upper part of the city much more susceptible to fires, whether they begin as house fires or, like last week’s event, as forest fires,” the professor says.

Martland is very familiar with Chile, and with Valparaiso in particular. His doctoral dissertation, "Constructing Valparaiso: Infrastructure and the Politics of Progress in Chile's Port, 1842-1918," examined the technology and politics of urban development, and of the implications of urbanization for state formation.

Martland is working on a Spanish-language version of this dissertation for publication in Chile. In November 2013, he organized a conference in Chile for the 150th anniversary of the burning of the Church of the Compañía in Santiago, which, at more than 2,000 deaths, may be the deadliest accidental fire in a single building anywhere in the world.

Martland has published articles on 19th century Chilean issues, and is teaching courses this spring about Brazil Since 1500 and Cities & Technology in the Industrial Age. He also teaches courses at Rose-Hulman on Colonial Latin America, Modern Latin America, World History, and Disasters and Modern Society.