This January marked Chilean pastor Alex Ugarte’s 24th anniversary at Iglesia Evangélica Bautista Esperanza Viva (Living Hope Evangelical Baptist Church) in Viña del Mar, a milestone that prompted him to ask himself if he should transition to something new.
His moment of reflection was short-lived. Last Friday, wildfires started in at least four places across the Valparaíso region. Within hours, they had reached Ugarte’s neighborhood. They soon torched his home and church and claimed the life of his father-in-law, a tragedy that prompted the church leader to reconsider his vocational plan.
“God showing me this tragedy and the needs of His people helped me understand that it’s time to start all over again,” he told CT.
Summer wildfires are not uncommon in this Pacific coastal South American country. This year, however, a particularly intense heatwave has coincided with prolonged drought. Strong winds caused the blaze to spread quickly toward some of Chile’s most heavily populated areas, including historic cities like Valparaíso and the country’s tourism capital, Viña del Mar.
As of February 9, the fires have killed 131 people and damaged or destroyed more than 5,000 homes.
Among the casualties were eight Esperanza Viva congregants, who lost their lives when the blaze reached their residential neighborhood of Villa Independencia. On Friday, Ugarte preached at two funerals, one for an elderly couple and another for two siblings, who were 5 and 7.
“There’s so much pain,” he said. “Many people are desperate because their families are now homeless. But our hearts remain steadfast, looking forward to seeing what God will do.”
Close to home
Esperanza Viva is one of eight churches that experienced significant damages, the National Office of Religious Affairs of Chile told CT. But church leaders in the area estimate the real number could be twice that. Furthermore, at least nine pastors lost their homes, according to a group of leaders from various churches trying to organize a disaster response.
Pastor Magno Rodriguez and his wife, María Angélica Cubillos Álvarez, are among them. They lead the Corporación Internacional de Restauración, an independent Pentecostal church in Quilpué, a more inland city in the Valparaíso region, where they live.
“We could see the wildfire far off,” said Cubillos. “But then a neighbor came to me yelling, saying, ‘Your house is on fire.’”
Magno and one of his sons tried to put it out, but gave up when the flames intensified. The family fled in a pickup truck as flames and smoke surrounded them.
“It was like driving with your eyes closed,” he said.
Cubillos has burns in her neck, and her husband and one of her sons both injured their arm fighting the blaze.
“It is a miracle that nobody in the congregation died,” she said.
But the tragedy still hit too close to home. While the fire spared the house next door, their neighbors perished from smoke inhalation, trying to escape.
“They died of suffocation in our backyard.”
‘Looks like we were bombed’
A week after the fires first began, the government has continued to issue emergency alerts for new fires in Valparaíso, Viña del Mar and Quilpué. (Though most fires are now under control, the hot weather and other factors continue to spark new blazes.)
“Our focus is now on helping people,” said pastor Dionicio Viana, director of the Youth With a Mission (YWAM) base in Viña del Mar. His headquarters were spared by the fire because a nearby avenue created a kind of wind corridor between two hills, which redirected the flames away from the building.
In neighborhoods like Villa Independencia, Achupallas (in Viña del Mar) and Pompeya (in Quilpué), few homes remain.
“When you look at our neighborhood [of Achupallas], it looks like we were bombed, like a war,” said Viana.
For the past week, residents have been without water and electricity. There are rumors that at least some of the fires were set intentionally.
“A collective psychosis has arisen and now everyone is afraid of new outbreaks,” Viana said.
“People are stealing the little that we have,” said Cubillos. He explained that looters are searching for valuables among the rubble. To protect against additional looting, residents are building fences around the houses, “but there isn't even a hammer or boards, nor lighting to do the work when it gets dark. We have to use our cell phones for light.”
In the past week, volunteers from churches around the country have gathered in Viña del Mar to help. With funding from Operation Blessing, four YWAM bases have sent people to join Viana in removing debris from the streets and houses. In some instances, they have begun to rebuild.
“This week we started to build a house for a brother here. We have already repaired the floor,” he said.
Although the wildfire victims have received significant attention from the media and government, this won’t last longer than two or three weeks, says Viana. But then the expensive work of reconstruction will begin.
Struck down, but not destroyed
In 1982, a group of Swedish missionaries opened an Independent Assemblies of God church in Villa Dulce, a neighborhood in Viña del Mar. Last week, the fire burned it down.
But assistant pastor Gonzalo Ramírez’s heart feels heaviest when it comes to the impact the disaster will have on the faith of congregants.
“Before the reconstruction of the walls of the church, we will need a spiritual reconstruction,” he said. “You can rebuild the church. But the history of it, of the missions that began in that place, the souls that got saved there … How many miracles have we seen in that place?”
With all this emotional baggage, he had to preach at the first service after the disaster, two days after the church was turned into ashes.
Ramírez first came to Villa Dulce to study at the church’s Bible institute (which now operates only online), where he met his future wife.
“My daughter, who is now 15, was practically born in those pews,” he said.
Usually, between 80 and 100 people attend Villa Dulce on Sunday. But with many roads closed and people displaced, only about half of that number turned out. The group met in a church building that the fire left mostly unscathed.
Ramírez preached on 2 Corinthians 4:7-18, reminding his church that as followers of Christ, they had “this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from [themselves],” and that they were called to persevere in the midst of turbulent times.
Because power was still off, the service was not livestreamed. But several days later, he preached a similar message on Facebook.
“With much respect and much humility I invite you, my beloved brothers and sisters, to look into the eternal things that go beyond what is evident ... to keep our hope in God, because those are the things that will remain,” he said.
At Esperanza Viva, Ugarte says his congregation will meet this Sunday on the grounds of the church building for an open-air service, for the first time since the fire. (The location was inaccessible last week.)
“For 24 years, God blessed us with a beautiful building, with classrooms for [Christian] education, training rooms, and a kitchen that prepared 8,500 meals during the pandemic,” he said. “Now our neighbors say we are going to build a church even more beautiful than the old one.”