|Some 11,000 hectares of woodland and scrub have already been destroyed [Reuters]
Chile has closed one of its most popular national parks in peak hiking season after a massive wildfire ravaged thousands of hectares of pristine Patagonia and showed no signs of abating.
High winds fanned the blaze at the Torres del Paine National Park, a 2,400 sq km paradise of mountains, glaciers, natural forests and lakes in deep southern Chile visited by more than 100,000 people each year.
After meeting emergency officials struggling to get a grip on the inferno, President Sebastian Pinera announced on Friday that the park would remain shut throughout January.
Some 11,000 hectares of woodland and scrub - nearly four per cent of the total area of the park - has already been destroyed by the blaze, which more than quadrupled in size in less than 24 hours.
The Chilean government has deployed four planes and a helicopter to the remote mountainous region, where 300 firefighters, soldiers and forest rangers were engaged in a desperate effort to get the inferno under control.
Aerial photographs showed a vast cloud of smoke obscuring the beautiful backdrop of snow-clad granite peaks, wild steppes and turquoise lakes.
"We are faced with a hugely complex situation, an extreme scenario, mainly due to topography, strong winds and highly combustible vegetation," said Vicente Nunez, head of Chile's Office of National Emergency (ONEMI).
A crucial break could come late on Friday or Saturday, when 10 to 15 mm of rain were expected.
The blaze erupted late on Tuesday and advanced rapidly in dry conditions, forcing authorities to evacuate 700 people, mostly tourists, from the park, which is located some 3,000km south of the capital Santiago.
Environmentalist group Accion Ecologica criticised what it said was the government's slow response to the wildfire, drawing an unfavorable comparison with its rapid crackdown on students protesting education reforms.
"We would have liked to see a government as gifted at throwing water on the flames consuming our natural heritage as they are on citizens defending their rights," said activist Luis Mariano Rendon.
Pinera pledged another 100 personnel would join crews on Saturday and said his government would seek "all necessary assistance" from other countries, having already contacted Argentina, Australia and the United States.
Neighbouring Argentina, which has its own forests just across the border from Torres del Paine, has sent in emergency teams to help.