Chile’s Worst Crisis Since 2010 Earthquake: Forest Fires Claim 112 Lives

Firefighters in central Chile are fighting severe forest fires that have destroyed whole towns and taken the lives of 112 people. 

They are not giving up. A severe warning has been given by President Gabriel Boric, who claims that the nation is facing a “tragedy of very great magnitude.”

The ongoing crisis has left hundreds of people missing, fueling concerns that the death toll may continue to rise as rescuers uncover more victims on hillsides and amid the ruins of homes consumed by the ferocious wildfires.

The fires, which gained momentum on Friday, now pose a threat to the outer perimeters of Vina del Mar and Valparaiso, two coastal cities popular among tourists. 

The urban sprawl of these cities encompasses over a million residents situated west of the capital, Santiago.

Drone footage captured by Reuters in the Vina del Mar area reveals entire neighborhoods reduced to ashes. Residents sift through the remnants of burnt-out houses, their corrugated iron roofs collapsed. Singed cars line the streets, remnants of the relentless inferno.

“The wind was terrible, the heat scorching. There was no respite. People dispersed everywhere,” recounted Pedro Quezada, a local builder in the Valparaiso region, standing amidst the charred debris of his obliterated home.

Social media posts depict hillside fires dangerously close to apartment blocks in the Valparaiso area, emitting smoke that blankets the air with a thick haze, severely limiting visibility in other urban zones.

In response, Chilean authorities have imposed a 9 p.m. curfew in the worst-affected areas and mobilized the military to support firefighting efforts. Helicopters have been deployed to drop water from the air in an attempt to quell the flames.

Chile’s Legal Medical Service, the state coroner, reported that the death toll from the fires has surged to 112, up from 51 on Saturday.

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President Declares National Tragedy Amid Wildfires

Firefighters in central Chile are fighting severe forest fires that have destroyed whole towns and taken the lives of 112 people.

President Boric, in a televised address, declared two days of national mourning starting on Monday and cautioned the nation to brace for more distressing news. “It is Chile as a whole that suffers and mourns our dead. We are facing a tragedy of very great magnitude,” he said.

According to Manuel Monsalve, the deputy interior minister, there are 165 fires going on across Chile right now. He estimated that the Vina del Mar and Quilpué regions alone had suffered damage to over 14,000 residences.

Residents returning to their devastated homes find them nearly unrecognizable, having lost almost all of their life’s possessions.

Sergio Espejo, a 64-year-old welder, and his wife, Maria Soledad Suarez, searched through the ashes of their soldering workshop and home in the Vina del Mar region. 

Suarez, 61, managed to salvage a plate and part of a porcelain doll, while Espejo lamented the loss of his tools scattered beneath mangled iron beams, declaring, “All the sacrifice, all in a lifetime.”

Although wildfires are not uncommon during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, the severity of these blazes marks Chile’s worst national disaster since the 2010 earthquake, which claimed the lives of about 500 people. 

Last year, a record heat wave resulted in 27 deaths and over 400,000 hectares (990,000 acres) of land being affected by wildfires.

President Boric has mobilized resources to aid the hardest-hit areas, many of which are popular tourist destinations. “We are together, all of us, fighting the emergency. The priority is to save lives,” Boric affirmed.

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