Firefighters in central Chile on Sunday struggled to quell fierce forest fires that have killed 112 people so far and razed entire neighbourhoods. Meanwhile, President Gabriel Boric warned that the country faces a “tragedy of very great magnitude”.
Hundreds of people are still missing, authorities claim, stoking fears the death toll may rise as more bodies are found on hillsides and houses devastated by the wildfires.
The fires that gathered momentum on Friday now menaced the outer edges of Vina del Mar and Valparaiso, two coastal cities popular with tourists. The urban sprawl of those cities accounts for more than a million residents west of the capital Santiago.
Drone footage filmed by Reuters in the Vina del Mar area showed whole neighbourhoods scorched, with residents rummaging through husks of burnt-out houses where corrugated iron roofs have collapsed. On the streets, singed cars littered the roads.
“The wind was terrible, the heat scorching. There was no respite. People dispersed everywhere,” said Pedro Quezada, a local builder in the Valparaiso region, standing amid the charred debris of his destroyed home.
Videos shared on social media showed hillside fires burning close to apartment blocks in the Valparaiso area, spewing smoke into the air. Thick haze blanketed other urban zones, hobbling visibility.
Chilean authorities have imposed a 9 p.m. curfew in the hardest-hit areas and sent in the military to help firefighters stem the spread of fires, while helicopters dumped water to try to douse the flames from the air.
Chile’s Legal Medical Service, the state coroner, said 112 people have died in the fires. The death toll stood at 51 on Saturday.
Earlier in the day Boric, announcing two days of national mourning starting on Monday, said Chile should prepare itself for more bad news.
“It is Chile as a whole that suffers and mourns our dead,” Boric said in a televised speech to the nation. “We are facing a tragedy of very great magnitude.”
Deputy Interior Minister Manuel Monsalve on Sunday said 165 fires raged across Chile and estimated about 14,000 homes have been damaged in the Vina del Mar and Quilpué areas alone.
Those who returned to their ravaged homes found them almost unrecognizable, with many losing all their life’s possessions.
Sergio Espejo, 64, a welder, poked through the ashes of his soldering workshop and home in the Vina del Mar region with his wife, Maria Soledad Suarez.
Suarez, 61, was able to retrieve a plate and part of a porcelain doll from the embers as she scoured the ground in search of jewellery. Espejo, lamenting the loss of all his tools scattered beneath mangled iron beans, gazed at the damage. “Here is my workshop, it’s destroyed,” he said. “All the sacrifice, all in a lifetime.”
Although wildfires are not uncommon during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, the lethality of these blazes stands out, making them the country’s worst national disaster since the 2010 earthquake which saw death of about 500 people. Last year, on the back of a record heat wave, some 27 people died and more than 400,000 hectares (990,000 acres) of land were affected. Boric has sought to channel funds to the hardest-hit areas, many of which are popular with tourists. “We are together, all of us, fighting the emergency. The priority is to save lives,” Boric said.