(Viña del Mar) At least 46 people have been killed in forest fires ravaging central and southern Chile, Chilean President Gabriel Boric announced on Saturday, adding that this toll was only provisional.
After a lull, the fires have resumed in the tourist region of Valparaiso, where the famous seaside resort of Viña del Mar is located, whose beaches are popular during this period of the austral summer marked by scorching temperatures.
The flames ravaged nearly 43,000 hectares on Saturday, particularly on the Pacific coast, according to the Minister of the Interior, Carolina Toha.
“Forty people were killed in the fires, and six others (died) from burns,” the head of state said after flying over the region by helicopter. “We know these (numbers) are going to increase.”
“This is an unprecedented disaster, the Valparaiso region has never experienced a situation of this magnitude,” said Macarena Ripamonti, mayor of Viña del Mar, which was particularly affected.
Violent winds fanned the flames and a pall of black smoke covered the streets, where explosions followed one another, AFP journalists noted.
The authorities have established a nighttime curfew from 9 p.m. local time (7 p.m. Eastern time), in order to facilitate the supply of fuel to emergency teams, “a priority” according to the undersecretary at the ministry of the Interior, Manuel Monsalve.
New calls for evacuations were launched, without it being possible to know how many residents remained at home.
In total, 92 fires were active at midday on Saturday, including 40 under control, mainly in the Valparaiso region, but also in the center and south of the country, announced the Minister of the Interior.
” A hell ”
On the hills of Valparaiso, where the streets are littered with hundreds of charred cars, thousands of people were able to discover their destroyed homes on Saturday morning.
Luis Vial, a 69-year-old retiree, collapsed in tears in front of the rubble of his house, in the Villa Independencia area where 19 victims were discovered: “In the space of a minute, we lost everything.”
“It was hell, explosions. I tried to help my neighbor turn off his car, my house was starting to burn from behind. It was a rain of ashes,” Rodrigo Pulgar, a driver who lost his house in El Olivar, one of the areas most devastated by the flames, told AFP.
Firefighters have been fighting tirelessly since Friday against dozens of homes in the regions of Valparaiso and O’Higgins in the center, but also Maule, Biobio, La Araucania and Los Lagos, in the south.
“The priority is the fires in the Valparaiso region, due to their proximity to urban areas,” declared the Minister of the Interior.
These are areas located between 80 and 120 km northwest of Santiago, rich in wine, agricultural and forestry businesses.
President Boric declared a state of emergency on Friday in order to “have all the necessary means” in the face of the progression of the fires. Fourteen ships and five helicopters were mobilized to fight the fires.
“A rain of burning ashes”
“We received an alert on the cell phone and a rain of burning ashes started to fall,” Yvonne Guzman confided earlier, reached by telephone by AFP.
This 63-year-old woman, who abandoned her home in Quilpué, a town located 90 kilometers northeast of Santiago, found herself stranded for several hours in her car, with her nonagenarian mother-in-law, due to the large number of people like her trying to escape the flames.
Since Wednesday, the temperature has been close to 40 degrees in central Chile and the capital Santiago.
“These episodes are more and more recurrent, which is why we see historic temperature records every year,” Pablo Lobos Stephani, in charge of fire protection at the Chilean channel, explained to CNN. Chilean national forestry office CONAF.
This heatwave resulting from the El Niño climatic phenomenon is currently affecting the southern cone of Latin America, in the middle of summer, causing forest fires worsened by global warming. After Chile and Colombia, the heat wave threatens Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil in the coming days.