A wildfire that has swept through part of Easter Island has burned some of its monumental carved stone figures, known as moai, authorities said.
The fire has reportedly ripped through Rapa Nui National Park, 3,500 km (2,175 miles) off Chile’s west coast, causing “irreparable” damage to the archaeological site.
“More than 100 hectares (247 acres) have been affected in the Rano Raraku sector, which includes the wetland and the moai sector,” the national park said in a statement on its official Facebook page on Thursday.
Carolina Perez, the undersecretary for cultural heritage, said the island – located 3,500 km (2,175 miles) off Chile’s west coast – had been burning since Monday.
Rapa Nui has more than 1,000 stone statues – giant heads believed to have been first carved in the 13th century by the island’s original inhabitants. The area around the Rano Raraku volcano, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is said to be the most affected.
It is estimated that there are several hundred moai in the area, as well as in the quarry where the stone used to carve the sculptures is extracted.
Ariki Tepano, the Ma’u Henua community director in charge of park management and maintenance, described the damage as “irreparable”.
“The moai are completely charred and you can see the effect of the fire on them,” he said.
Easter Island Mayor Pedro Edmunds Paoa said he believed the fire “was not an accident”, telling local radio Pauta that “all fires on Rapa Nui are caused by human beings”.
“The damage caused by the fire cannot be undone,” Edmunds Paoa added. “The crack in the original and symbolic stone cannot be restored, no matter how many millions of euros or dollars are invested in it.”
The park said a “lack of volunteers” was hampering officials’ ability to bring the fire under control. The total damage at the site has yet to be assessed.
The fire comes just three months after the island reopened to tourism on August 5, following a two-year shutdown due to Covid-19.
Before the pandemic, Easter Island – where the main source of life is tourism – received 160,000 visitors a year, two daily flights.
But with the arrival of Covid-19 in Chile, tourism activities have been completely suspended.
The island was long inhabited by Polynesians, before being annexed by Chile in 1888. The monuments are thought to represent the living ancestors of the Polynesian people of Easter Island and were once associated with ritual activities, forming a focal point for the communities.