Santiago de Chile, Feb 4 (EFE).- The raging forest fires have killed more than 50 people in the densely populated central region of Chile, officials said on Saturday, sparking fears that the death toll may increase.
At least 51 people are dead, and the toll is likely to increase, Interior Minister Carolina Toha told reporters.
“We are going to reach much higher figures” in the coming hours, she said, describing the condition in the worst hit Valparaiso region as “the most delicate.”
The minister said the country was facing its worst disaster since a 2010 earthquake that killed about 525 people. “After the 2010 earthquake, the forest fires in Valparaíso will be the deadliest disaster in Chile in recent times.”
Earlier, President Gabriel Boric told a national network that 40 people were charred alive, and another six died in hospitals as a result of burns.
“Given the conditions of the tragedy, we know that the number of the victims will increase,” the president said, speaking from the La Moneda presidential palace after surveying the fire-affected areas.
The tragedy marks the deadliest wave of fires in recent Chilean history, almost doubling the previous year’s record toll of 27.
President Boric declared a state of emergency in the central and southern parts of the country on Friday, citing the challenging firefighting conditions as dry weather and rising temperatures exasperated the crisis.
“Evacuate without hesitation when told to do so. The fire is advancing rapidly, and the weather conditions have complicated firefighting efforts,” Boric urged the people.
Currently, at least four large active fires are burning in the Valparaíso region: two in the coastal city of Viña del Mar (in the Las Tablas and Qurauma sectors) and another two in the towns of Quilpué (Villa Alemana) and Quillota.
The devastating fires started on Friday in the densely populated hills surrounding the city of Viña del Mar. The flames are advancing relentlessly and have already reached industrial areas, triggering explosions in chemical and paint factories.
The explosions have generated a toxic black cloud in the so-called “garden city,” one of the hotspot tourist destinations in Chile that attracts thousands of visitors every summer.
To facilitate rescue and firefighting efforts and clear evacuation routes, the Chilean government ordered a 12-hour curfew, starting at 9 pm local time in the areas that have not yet been evacuated.
“Our priority is to save lives, and to do so we need to have the entire public and private health network,” said Boric, acknowledging that there are suspicions that the fire was intentional.
High temperatures soaring to nearly 40 degrees Celsius, strong winds average 30 km per hour with gusts of up to 60, and dry conditions are worsening the crisis.
The fires have destroyed more than 1,000 houses in different parts of the region and burned nearly 50,000 hectares of land.
The catastrophe coincides with one of the most intense heat waves in recent years, with temperatures reaching 38 degrees in the central areas of Chile.
Experts attribute such incidents to rising temperatures and a forestry model focused on the monoculture of pine and eucalyptus.
Despite recent wet winters, concerns persist as experts warn of ongoing drought conditions and the potential for easily combustible vegetation in the south-central region of Chile. EFE