Chile wildfires: Hundreds missing as thousands of homes burn

Chile wildfires: Hundreds missing as thousands of homes burn
Burned cars stand outside the devastated home of Patricia Araya, known as 'La Pati,' a staff at the Botanical Garden of Vina del Mar who died in a fire along with her mother and her two grandchildren, aged 9 and one, in Vina del Mar, Chile, 05 February 2024EPA

Hundreds of people are missing as wildfires continue to raze homes in Chile’s Valparaíso region.

More than 120 people have been killed in the fires, which have burned down thousands of homes.

President Gabriel Boric said the blaze was “the worst catastrophe to hit the country since the earthquake of 27 February 2010”, in which more than 500 people died.

The smoke from the fires could be seen from space, satellite images showed.

Satellite image shows fires in the Valparaíso region

The fires broke out last week amid an unusual heat wave that had drawn tourists to the seaside towns of Viña del Mar and Valparaíso, which are normally cooled by sea breezes.

But both cities, as well as the town of Quilpué to the east, have been wrapped in acrid smoke from the forest fires burning in the nearby hills.

The fires were fanned by strong winds and residents described how, within minutes, their hillside communities were engulfed in flames. Drone footage showed the extent of the damage.

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Many people were not able to flee in time and were overtaken by the wall of flames. Officials said that 123 had died, but so far only 33 have been identified.

The interior minister said the government’s priority was saving lives and stopping the fire. Meanwhile, volunteers are handing out food and clothes to those who have lost their homes.

Nearly 15,000 homes have been damaged, according to the authorities. Whole neighbourhoods have been razed and photos showed the twisted wreckages of burnt-out cars dotting the streets.

President Boric declared a state of emergency on Friday and imposed a night-time curfew.

Police and experts are investigating whether the fires may have been started deliberately.

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By David Ryckman