Forest fires in central Chile killed at least 51 people on Saturday as emergency crews attempt to put out flames threatening urban areas.
The death toll is expected to continue to rise, according to officials. Interior Minister Carolina Tohá said information suggests the region is “going to reach much higher figures” in the coming hours. Tohá said 92 forest fires were burning in the center and south of the country.
Black smoke filled the sky over much of the Valparaíso region as firefighters using helicopters and trucks worked to put out the fires. The deadliest of the fires were in the Valparaíso region, where thousands of people were urged to evacuate their homes. Tohá said four hospitals and three nursing homes in the Valparaíso region had to be evacuated.
Three shelters were set up in the Valparaíso region while 19 helicopters and more than 450 firefighters were brought into the area to help battle the fires, Tohá said.
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Areas around the coastal tourist city of Viña del Mar were some of the hardest hit by the fires, and rescue teams were struggling to reach all the affected areas, Chilean officials said. The fires were burning on mountains that are hard to reach, including neighborhoods built on the edge of Viña del Mar.
In Villa Independencia, a hillside neighborhood on the eastern edge of Viña del Mar, several blocks of homes and businesses were destroyed. Burned cars with broken windows were seen on the streets, which were covered in ash.
“The condition of Valparaiso is the most delicate,” Tohá said, noting that this is the country’s worst disaster since a 2010 earthquake killed about 500 people.
President Gabriel Boric told the nation in a televised address that the situation “is really very difficult.”
“If you are told to evacuate don’t hesitate to do it,” he said. “The fires are advancing fast and climatic conditions have made them difficult to control. There are high temperatures, strong winds and low humidity.”
At least 1,100 homes were destroyed in the fires, officials said.
The fire also destroyed two bus terminals and officials reported power blackouts as a result of the fire.
Wildfires are not uncommon in Chile in the summer months. During a record heat wave last year, more than 25 people died and more than 400,000 hectares, or 990,000 acres, were affected.
“The area with fires today is much smaller than last year, [but] at this time the number of hectares affected is multiplying very rapidly,” Tohá said.
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Between Friday and Saturday, the area affected by the wildfires increased to 43,000 hectares, or 110,000 acres, from 30,000 hectares.
Toha said the greatest concern was that some of the active fires were developing very close to urban areas “with the very high potential to affect people, homes and facilities.”
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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