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Chile Wildfires Claim 112 Lives, Prompting President to Declare State of Emergency

Emergency responders are still fighting fires in Valparaiso’s coastal tourist region amidst a severe summer heatwave, where temperatures reached 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) over the weekend.

The death toll from the raging wildfires in central Chile has surged to a minimum of 99 individuals as of Sunday. President Gabriel Boric cautioned that the number is expected to climb considerably as rescue teams continue searching through the devastated neighborhoods. The coastal tourist region of Valparaiso is still grappling with intense fires amid a scorching summer heat wave, with temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) over the weekend.

Rosana Avendano, a 63-year-old kitchen assistant from Vina del Mar, recounted the horrifying experience of being away from home when the fire swept through her city. She expressed the devastating loss, stating, “It was terrible because I couldn’t get to my house. The fire came here… we lost everything.” Lilian Rojas, a 67-year-old retiree, described the destruction of her neighborhood near the Vina del Mar botanical garden, emphasizing, “Not a single house was left here.”

The organization responsible for managing victims’ bodies reported on Sunday afternoon that they had received 99 individuals, with 32 of them identified. President Boric, speaking from the devastated hillside community of Quilpue near Vina del Mar, initially mentioned 64 casualties but stressed that the number was certain to “rise significantly.” He compared the situation to the country’s deadliest disaster since the 2010 earthquake and tsunami that claimed the lives of 500 people.

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Dead victims in the streets

Boric has declared a state of emergency, vowing governmental assistance to aid affected individuals in recovering from the crisis after conducting an aerial survey of the impacted region from a helicopter on Saturday afternoon.

As reported by the National Disaster Service, SENAPRED, an estimated 26,000 hectares (64,000 acres) have been consumed by fires in the central and southern regions by Sunday. A combined force of 31 firefighting helicopters and airplanes, along with 1,400 firefighters, 1,300 military personnel, and volunteers, is actively engaged in battling the flames.

According to SENAPRED chief Alvaro Hormazabal, as of Sunday morning, firefighters are contending with 34 ongoing blazes, while 43 others have been brought under control. Hormazabal noted that challenging weather conditions are expected to persist.

In response to the emergency, authorities have implemented a curfew starting at 9:00 pm on Saturday (0000 GMT Sunday). Additionally, residents in the affected areas have been instructed to evacuate their homes.

In the hillsides surrounding Vina del Mar, AFP reporters observed entire blocks of houses that were ravaged by fire overnight from Friday into Saturday. Tragically, some casualties were found lying on the road, covered by sheets.

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Over the past several days, persistent fires have compelled authorities to shut down the road connecting the Valparaiso region to the capital Santiago, located approximately 1.5 hours away. The extensive plume of smoke has severely hampered visibility, prompting this closure. Online images shared by stranded motorists depict mountains ablaze along the renowned “Route 68,” leading to the Pacific coast.

Interior Minister Carolina Toha has declared the weekend blazes as undoubtedly the deadliest fire event in Chile’s history. Residents such as Rodrigo Pulgar from El Olivar recounted the harrowing experience, stating, “This was an inferno. I tried to help my neighbor… my house was starting to burn behind us. It was raining ash.”

Pope Francis, a native of neighboring Argentina, addressed the devastating situation during his Sunday remarks, urging prayers for the victims of the fires. The current fires are exacerbated by a summer heatwave and drought affecting the southern part of South America, attributed to the El Nino weather phenomenon. Scientists caution that a warming planet increases the likelihood of natural disasters, including intense heat and fires.

The escalating temperatures pose a threat to more regions across the continent. In Argentina, firefighting brigades have been combating a blaze in Los Alerces National Park since January 25, consuming over 3,000 hectares of this renowned area celebrated for its beauty and biodiversity.