Chile Wildfire 2013: Police Arrest Welder Who Started Massive Fire

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CHILE WILDFIRE 2013
Firefighters and investigative police officers carry the bodies of firefighters who died battling wildfires in a mountain near Carahue, southern Chile, Thursday Jan. 5, 2012. Shifting winds caused flames to sweep over a group of Chilean firefighters Thursday, killing six of them, badly burning two and leaving another missing. Nearly 50 wildfires have sprung up in southern Chile, destroying hundreds of houses, forcing the evacuations of thousands of people and causing millions of dollars in damag | AP

SANTIAGO, Chile — Chilean police have arrested a man they say is responsible for the worst forest fire in decades in the hills above the port of Valparaiso.

Police say Carlos Rivas, a 27-year-old mason, confessed early Saturday to accidentally igniting the blaze with a welder's torch.

"He's a worker from the RVC (construction) company who was cutting steel panels with a welder's torch," Police Gen. Julio Pineda told State TV.

"We arrived at his home, and he confessed," Pineda said. "Everything points to an accident but we'll need to determine if someone else is responsible. For now, he's the one."

The RVC construction company has issued a statement denying any wrongdoing. But Rivas said in a written statement that his boss asked him to lie and cover up his role in the fire.

Local television aired images of Rivas being taken into a court in Valparaiso for a hearing followed by a mob of photographers and camera crews. TV reporters said he was joined by distraught family members, among them his mother, who fainted twice before she reached the court room.

During the hearing, Valparaiso prosecutor Victor Avila read Rivas' statement, in which he says his boss pressured him to tell police that he was painting instead of welding.

"While the bushes where on fire, the site manager (Cristian Berrios) asked me: `Carlos what happened?' I answered that this mess was the outcome of the work that he made me do," the prosecutor read.

"When police arrived to the site, the manager told me, `Carlos you have to man up to this on your own.' ... Mr. Berrios then called me at around 8 p.m. asking me to say that I was painting and that I never used the welding tools."

RVC company officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

Chile's emergency office, ONEMI, issued a red alert after the blaze broke out on Thursday in the city's San Roque hill, some 75 miles (120 kilometers) northeast of the capital, Santiago.

The fire destroyed more than 100 homes and forced the evacuation of more than 1,200 people. At least 27 people were injured, including five children.

Strong, changing winds and hot, dry weather at the height of the Southern Hemisphere's summer holiday season stoked the fire.

President Sebastian Pinera cut his vacation short to visit the victims Friday at shelters. He has vowed to rebuild the area and give everyone new homes.

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Luis Andres Henao on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao

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