At least 51 people dead in Chile wildfires

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Forest fires in Chile have killed at least 51 people, officials said Saturday, warning the death toll is expected to rise, as unusually high temperatures and droughts fan blazes across South America.

President Gabriel Boric has declared a state of emergency to combat the forest fires encroaching on coastal cities in the Valparaíso region in central Chile, around 70 miles northwest of the capital, Santiago. Boric has asked for more military personnel to immediately deploy to the affected areas, home to more than 1 million people.

Interior Minister Carolina Tohá said in a news conference late Saturday that the country was facing its deadliest tragedy since a 2010 earthquake that killed more than 500 people.

Across the country, some 92 fires were burning Saturday, and responders had managed to control 40 of them. The blazes have spread to at least 43,000 hectares, or more than 106,000 acres, Tohá said earlier in the day.

While that is smaller than the area affected by forest fires in the country in February last year, Tohá said the blazes are expected to multiply quickly. The biggest concern, she said, is that many of the fires are inching very close to urban areas.

Authorities are investigating suspicions that at least one of the fires was deliberately lit. “While it is difficult to imagine who would be willing to cause so much tragedy and so much pain, know that we will investigate,” Boric said in a televised address.

Authorities have not yet named those who died in the blazes. The official death toll rose late Saturday after a number of bodies were found on roads. Tohá said it was expected to rise again in the coming hours.

“We don’t have concrete numbers, but we know that thousands of households were affected” by the fire, she said.

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At least 1,000 homes had been damaged in the Valparaíso region, according to estimates from Chilean disaster agency Senapred. Hillside neighborhoods surrounding the coastal resort city of Viña del Mar were among those hardest hit.

Macarena Ripamonti, the mayor of Viña del Mar, described it as an “unprecedented tragedy.”

The president decreed a curfew in the area to help free up routes for emergency vehicles and to allow people to evacuate.

Wildfires are relatively common in Chile during the summer months. The peak fire season typically begins in early December and lasts several months.

This year, a change to the El Niño weather pattern — which causes rising sea temperatures near South America — has led to soaring temperatures and heat waves across the region, including in the Chilean capital, Santiago.

Colombia’s government last month asked for international help to combat raging wildfires spanning nearly 40,000 hectares.



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