A fire that may have been intentionally set has caused “irreparable” damage to some of the iconic ancient moai statues on Easter Island, local authorities said this week.
The fire began on the island, known as Rapa Nui by Indigenous people, on Monday, and it has affected a number of the island’s nearly 1,000 statues. Carolina Pérez Dattari, Chile’s Undersecretary of Cultural Heritage, said on Twitter this week that at least 247 acres (60 hectares) of land were affected around the Rano Raraku volcano region. That area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of the national park on the island, has nearly 400 of the island’s famous statues, as well as a quarry used to construct the sculptures.
Dattari told CNN that officials “are on the ground assessing the damages” to the moai. In a statement posted to Facebook, Rapa Nui authorities said that a “shortage of volunteers” helped the fire get out of control enough to spread.
The damage to the statues is “irreparable and with consequences beyond what your eyes see,” Ariki Tepano, the director of the Ma’u Henua community that manages the national park on the island, said in a statement posted to Facebook. “The moai are totally charred and you can see the effect of the fire upon them.”
The BBC reported that the fire may have been set intentionally, which Rapa Nui Mayor Pedro Edmunds Paoa seemed to confirm to local media this week.
“All the fires on Rapa Nui are caused by human beings,” Paoa told broadcaster Radio Pauta. “The damage caused by the fire can’t be undone. The cracking of an original and emblematic stone cannot be recovered, no matter how many millions or euros or dollars are put into it.”
The mayor said that some moai were “semi-buried and that is what saved them,” but “those on the surface were reached by fire.”
Rapa Nui is a Chilean territory, situated in the Polynesian Triangle in the southern Pacific Ocean some 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers) off the Western coast of Chile. The island’s enormous statues were carved between the 10th and 16th centuries and average about 13 feet (4 meters) high, with some as tall as 65 feet (19.8 meters).
The territory is one of the most isolated inhabited places in the world. About 5,000 people live full-time on the island, and thousands of tourists visit each year. Much of the island’s full-time population are descendants of the Rapa Nui people, who maintain the national park and the tourist infrastructure around it.
In the interview, Paoa seemed to attribute some blame for the fire for a lack of resources given to the national park by the Chilean government. “The State has been absent all the time,” he said. “Many of these conflicts have to do with a prevention plan. In fire prevention, we have a 16,000-hectare park, which is the largest open-air museum in the world…It is the most relevant thing that Chile has, and it is not taken care of.”
In early August, the park was opened once again to visitors after two years of closure during the covid-19 pandemic.