Firefighters extinguish blaze near Peru’s sacred Inca citadel of Machu Picchu

A wildfire that destroyed 700 hectares of underbrush in a protected area surrounding Machu Picchu — Peru’s sacred Inca citadel and top tourist attraction — was brought under control Wednesday by more than 700 firefighters.

“The fire has not affected nor compromised any of the archaeological monuments and the flow of tourists to the Inca citadel and the Inca trail are completely normal,” Machu Picchu Park Director Fernando Astete told local daily Sol de Cusco. “The most complicated phase of the emergency is over.”

The blaze had raged since Saturday, approximately 10 kilometers, or six miles, from Machu Picchu. Smoke from the fire forced PeruRail to suspend its train service to the ruins for several hours on Monday.

State news agency Andina reported that of the 700 firefighters involved in the effort to extinguish the wildfire, two suffered minor injuries.

Though now mainly under control, various “hot spots” continued to burn, fed by strong winds and the highland’s ardent sun, including a small fire making its way toward the Andean town of Ollantaytambo.

“On Monday we had already practically controlled the flames,” National Cultural Institute Subdirector Jorge Prado, was quoted saying by daily La Republica. “Now only small areas are (still ablaze) and we will focus on these to satisfactorily finish our job.”

But, Cuzco’s daily El Sol argued in an editorial that even if the fire is extinguished, “the Inca paradise is being destroyed.”

In July, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee requested reinforced monitoring for Peru’s Inca citadel of Machu Picchu expressing grave concern over the governance of the site and imminent risks of landslides, deforestation and especially fires.

According to the UNESCO, one-third of the forests and underbrush in the protected area surrounding Machu Picchu have been affected by fire, often set by local farmers attempting to clear chacra of undergrowth. In 1997, a fire destroyed vegetation immediately surrounding the ruins and reached the lowest terraces of the site.

The ruins face many threats related to unregulated and expanding tourism, the uncontrolled growth of hotels and restaurants in Aguas Calientes — which is putting great pressure on the site’s erosion-prone banks — as well as potential forest fires and landslides. In 2004, several deaths occurred as a result of mudslides in the sanctuary, and these have at times covered different sections of the rail line.

The site’s inclusion last year to the new list of world wonders has set off an unprecedented increase in the number of visitors, totaling a record-breaking 800,158 in 2007.

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