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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - View of the Botanical Garden after a forest fire in Vina del Mar, Chile, taken on February 4, 2024. — AFP pic
VIÑA DEL MAR (Chile), Feb 5 — The death toll from central Chile’s blazing wildfires jumped to at least 99 people yesterday, after President Gabriel Boric warned the number would rise “significantly” as teams search gutted neighbourhoods.
Responders continued to battle fires in the coastal tourist region of Valparaiso amid an intense summer heat wave, with temperatures soaring to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) over the weekend.
Rosana Avendano, a 63-year-old kitchen assistant, was away from home when the fire began to sweep through Vina del Mar, the seaside city where she lives with her husband.
“It was terrible because I couldn’t get (to my house). The fire came here... we lost everything,” Avendano told AFP.
“My husband was lying down and began to feel the heat of the fire coming and he ran away.”
She feared the worst for hours, but eventually was able to contact him.
“Not a single house was left here,” retiree Lilian Rojas, 67, told AFP of her neighbourhood near the Vina del Mar botanical garden, which was also destroyed in the flames.
The organisation in charge of managing victims’ bodies said yesterday afternoon it had “taken in 99 people, 32 of them identified.”
Speaking earlier in Quilpue, a devastated hillside community near Vina del Mar, Boric had given a toll of 64 people, but said the number was certainly “going to rise.”
“We know it is going to increase significantly,” he added, saying it was the country’s deadliest disaster since a 2010 earthquake and tsunami that killed 500 people.
Dead victims in the streets
Boric has declared a state of emergency, pledging government support to help people get back on their feet after he flew over the affected area in a helicopter Saturday afternoon.
According to the national disaster service, Senapred, nearly 26,000 hectares (64,000 acres) had been burned across the central and southern regions by yesterday.
Supported by 31 firefighting helicopters and airplanes, some 1,400 firefighters, 1,300 military personnel and volunteers are combating the flames.
Senapred chief Alvaro Hormazabal said firefighters were battling 34 blazes as of yesterday morning, with 43 others under control.
Weather “conditions are going to continue to be complicated,” Hormazabal said.
Authorities imposed a curfew beginning at 9:00pm Saturday (0000 GMT Sunday), while thousands in the affected areas were ordered to evacuate their homes.
In the hillsides around Vina del Mar, AFP reporters saw entire blocks of houses that were burned out overnight Friday into Saturday.
Some of the dead were seen lying on the road, covered by sheets.
The fires, raging for days, forced authorities on Friday to close the road linking the Valparaiso region to the capital Santiago, about 1.5 hours away, as a huge mushroom cloud of smoke impaired visibility.
Images posted online from trapped motorists showed mountains in flames at the end of the famous “Route 68” leading to the Pacific coast.
According to Interior Minister Carolina Toha, the weekend blazes have been “without a doubt” the deadliest fire event in Chile’s history.
“This was an inferno,” Rodrigo Pulgar, from the town of El Olivar, told AFP. “I tried to help my neighbour... my house was starting to burn behind us. It was raining ash.”
During his Sunday address, Pope Francis, a native of neighbouring Argentina, called for prayers for the “dead and wounded in the devastating fires in Chile.”
The fires are being driven by a summer heatwave and drought affecting the southern part of South America caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon, as scientists warn that a warming planet has increased the risk of natural disasters such as intense heat and fires.
The rising temperatures threaten to engulf more of the continent, as brigades in Argentina have been fighting a fire that has consumed more than 3,000 hectares in Los Alerces National Park, famed for its beauty and biodiversity, since January 25. — AFP
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