Torres del Paine is burning.

A GIANT FIRE, fanned by up to 120 kph winds in Chile’s most famous, most visited, and most money-making national park has already consumed a large swath of vegetation, and forced the evacuation of some 600 people, including 400 tourists. According to the latest from President Sebastian Piñera as seen here on CNNChile, the fire started on Tuesday, and has already destroyed 850 hectares (21,000 acres). The government has now shut down Parque Nacional Torres del Paine until the fire can be controlled or extinguished, with an estimate the the park will be closed for at least the month of January.

Torres del Paine is Chile’s golden child, bringing tourists from all over the world, and charging them $30 a head to walk over wide glacial valleys and moraines, interspersed with steppe, forests of native lenga and ñire, turquoise lakes, and views of both the grey-and-brown layered massif called the cuernos (horns) and the granite spires that give the park their name. Two main treks pull in hikers: the 4-day W trek and the longer 10-day circuit. Conditions are often fierce, and I’ve seen people hug the side of the steep trail as winds rushed over the Refugio Chileno (the closest non-camping options to the towers themselves) and the turbine that powers the electric there spin so fast as to be invisible.

The problems in fighting the fires is multifold. There is no dedicated airborne brigade to take it on, the winds keep shifting direction — which prevents air access and limits visibility as well as brings oxygen to the flames — and the area where the fire is burning is relatively remote. The park is three hours overland from Puerto Natales, the closest population center, and the place where the fire started is accessed by a boat crossing. This fire, its cause as yet undetermined, started on a steep slope beside the trail to Lago Grey, which comprises part of the western side of the W trail (the section farthest from the torres). View this map of Torres del Paine to see the location of Lago Grey on the left hand side.

Twitter is zooming quickly with information, links to articles, and reactions to news of the fire, with the hash tag #salvemostorresdelpaine (let’s save Torres del Paine). Below are some tweets from Friday afternoon:

It's thanks to Torres del Paine that people even know about Chile.

All of Chile cries, her beauty in flames.

If the fire in Torres del Paine were in the capital, Santiago, Ñuñoa, Providencia and Independencia would be burning.

Other tweeters and facebook comments lament what is seen as yet another tragedy in Chile — there was land (February, 2010 8.8 earthquake), water (tsunami generated by the earthquake), air (a recent plane crash on the way to the Juan Fernandez archipelago), and now fire. The Chilean government has called in support from the United States, Argentina, and Australia, and expects to have 450 firefighters on hand by Saturday, but cannot predict when the fire will be under control or when the park will once again open to visitors.

* Feature photo: John Spooner