A YOUNG Moray woman who found herself in the middle of a national disaster has been helping to bring emergency aid to thousands of people left homeless by rampaging fires.
Ruby Bayley-Pratt is on a year-long exchange to a university in Valparaiso, Chile, which has just been struck by one of the biggest catastrophes in the city’s history.
On April 12, a series of fires broke out on several of the 42 hills that make up the city of 250,000 people.
The scale of the damage was huge, with strong winds rapidly spreading the flames and destroying 2,500 acres of land. Fifteen people died, while 12,500 more were made homeless.
Valparaiso’s poorest neighbour-hoods, often made up of little more than wooden huts, were the worst affected.
Earlier on April 12, there had been little sign of the impending crisis, as Ruby enjoyed a barbecue organised to celebrate her 21st birthday.
Ruby, from Garmouth, said: "The fires broke out as the barbecue was going on, but nobody was really aware of how serious they were, or would become, so we carried on without giving it much thought.
"That was until the electricity cut out all over the city due to cables having been melted by flames. The panic set in very, very quickly.
"We woke the next day to ash falling from the sky as if a volcano had exploded. Our patio is open, so our house was filled with debris, despite the fact that the fire was happening more than four miles away at the other end of the city.
"We couldn’t see the sky for all the smoke, and the air was hot and muggy, making it difficult to breathe. Obviously, we were up and out pretty quickly, trying to find ways to help."
Ruby, who is studying languages at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, said that all universities in the area cancelled their classes for a week so that students could provide support.
Ruby described the relief effort, for the first few days, as "impressive, albeit chaotic and disorganised".
The entire city came out and pulled together to help, she said.
"It was incredibly moving. Collection centres for donations and shelters for people who had lost their homes popped up all over the city, with no centralisation or management on the part of the state," she explained.
"Hundreds of thousands of things were donated, from clothing to nappies and food. Every plaza in the city was filled with people organising and boxing up donations and then loading them into the back of trucks.
"Eventually, people also started to go up the hills that had been directly affected by the fire and began to search through the debris and salvage people’s belongings or sweep up and dispose of the ashes and what was left of the houses."
For more on this story, see this week's 'Northern Scot' print version