Intense forest fires burning around a densely populated area of central Chile have caused at least 46 deaths, Chile’s president said Saturday evening, and officials said at least 1,100 homes had been destroyed.
In a nationally televised address, President Gabriel Boric warned that the death toll could worsen as four large fires burn in the region of Valparaiso, where firefighters have struggled to reach the most threatened neighbourhoods.
Boric urged Chileans to cooperate with rescue workers.
“If you are told to evacuate don’t hesitate to do it,” he said. “The fires are advancing fast and climatic conditions have made them difficult to control. There are high temperatures, strong winds and low humidity.”
Interior Minister Carolina Toha said earlier Saturday that 92 forest fires burning in the centre and south of the country, where temperatures have been unusually high this week.
Authorities in Valparaiso region urged thousands of people to flee their homes.
In areas farther away from the fires, meanwhile, residents were told to stay at home so that fire engines, ambulances and other emergency vehicles can get about on the roads with greater ease.
Toha said two fires near the towns of Quilpue and Villa Alemana had burned through at least 8,000 hectares since Friday.
One of the fires was threatening the coastal resort town of Vina del Mar, where some neighbourhoods have already been hit hard.
In Villa Independencia, a hillside neighbourhood on the eastern edge of town, several blocks of homes and businesses were completely destroyed. Burned-out cars with broken windows lined the streets, which were covered in ashes.
“I’ve been here 32 years, and never imagined this would happen,” said Rolando Fernandez, one of the residents who lost his home. He explained that he first saw the fire burning on a nearby hill on Friday afternoon. Within 15 minutes the area was engulfed in flames and smoke, forcing everyone to run for their lives.
“I’ve worked my whole life, and now I’m left with nothing,” Fernandez said.
Three shelters have been set up in the Valparaiso region, and 19 helicopters and more than 450 firefighters had been brought into the area to control the blazes, Toha said.
The fires are burning on mountains that are hard to reach and have affected neighbourhoods that were built precariously on the edge of Vina del Mar.
Officials have also reported blackouts as a result of the fire. Toha said that in the region of Valparaiso, four hospitals had to be evacuated as well as three nursing homes for the elderly. The fire also destroyed two bus terminals, the interior minister said.
The El Niño weather pattern has caused droughts and hotter-than-usual temperatures along the west of South America this year, increasing the risk of forest fires. In January, more than 17,000 hectares of forests were destroyed in Colombia by fires that followed several weeks of dry weather.