A huge blaze that swept through part of Easter Island has caused significant damage to the renowned stone moai monuments. The fire, which started on Monday, tore through Rapa Nui, a national park with over 1,000 stone statues situated 3,500km (2,175 miles) off the west coast of Chile. The devastating flames affected over 100 hectares (247 acres) of the Rano Raraku sector of the park. Rapa Nui said in a statement on its official Facebook page on Thursday: “More than 100 hectares (247 acres) were affected in the Rano Raraku sector which includes the wetland and moai sector.”
The famous moai statues were carved by a Polynesian tribe, the island’s original inhabitants, more than 500 years ago in the 13th century. They are a recognisable image and some stand at about four metres (13ft) high, weighing about 700 tonnes, while others stand a whopping 10 metres tall.
Drawing in tourists from across the world, the Unesco world heritage site relies on visitors and had only just reopened three months ago after it closed during the Covid pandemic. Before Covid, the site would receive around 160,000 visitors a year.
The area around the Rano Raraku volcano was reportedly the worst affected, where over several hundred moai are situated. This part of the national park also has a quarry where the stone used to carve the sculptures is extracted and where more than 800 moai statues were made
The site has closed again while a conservation team further investigates the damage. Easter Island mayor, Pedro Edmunds Paoa, told local media: “The damage caused by the fire can’t be undone.”
Mr Paoa added: “The cracking of an original and emblematic stone cannot be recovered, no matter how many millions of euros or dollars are put into it.”
He also believed that the fire may have been a deliberate act of arson. He told local radio: “Fires have no origin, they only have an end. And that is created by human beings, it is not an accident… All the fires on Rapa Nui are caused by human beings.”
However, other native officials have reported that the fire was started by the Rano Raraku volcano, which is based nearby the site.
Ariki Tepano, the director of the Ma’u Henua community, which looks after the park, said that the fire has caused “irreparable and with consequences beyond what your eyes can see”, adding that the “moai are totally charred”.
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But some are reportedly still salvageable. Mr Paoa said that several of the statues are only “semi-buried and that is what saves them”, adding that “those on the surface were caught by fire. There are several, but one is enough”.
According to Chile’s National Monuments Council (CNM), the composition of the statues can be badly affected by “exposure to high temperatures … which could create big fractures that affect the Moai’s integrity.”
But the national park has said that a “shortage of volunteers” limited the ability of officials to get the fire under control.
For years, researchers have been baffled by the unknown purpose of these famous monuments, but Unesco believes they were built to represent the ancestors of the Eastern Polynesian settlers.
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The mixed population of Easter Island is mainly of Polynesian descent, and almost all inhabitants live in the village of Hanga Roa on the sheltered west coast.
Easter Island was inhabited by Polynesian people up until 1888, when it was annexed by Chile. The Polynesian seafarers are thought to have first reached Rapa Nui around 900 years ago.
The Chileans initially leased nearly all of its territory for sheep raising. It was not until 1965 that a civilian governor was appointed by the Chilean government, meaning the islanders became full Chilean citizens.
TheRapa Nui Marine Protected Area, encompassing 286,000 square miles (740,000 square km) of the Pacific Ocean surrounding Easter Island, was established in 2018.