Wildfires continue to rage in Chile
Chile is still battling to control around 20 wildfires that have swept through thousands of hectares of land.
Last Modified: 04 Jan 2012 12:11

Forest fires in southern Chile, fueled by intense heat and strong winds, advanced further after destroying nearly 40,000 hectares of Chile land in the south, officials said.

Chile's normally rainy southern regions are suffering from a nationwide heat wave that have followed a prolonged drought.

"We still have 20 fires that are active"

- Chilean President Sebastian Pinera

Chile's President Sebastian Pinera blamed the La Nina weather phenomenon and "global warming" for the lack of rain.

"We still have 20 fires that are active," Pinera told reporters, warning that Chile is facing "an extraordinarily risky and vulnerable" fire season due to dry summer weather.

The country was battling 48 separate fires on Sunday alone.

Catastrophe zones

The worst of the blazes were concentrated in Chile's Bio Bio region, about 500 kilometres south of Santiago, where about 22,500 hectares have been destroyed, according to the Office of National Emergencies.

About 500 people have been evacuated from the area and 162 homes destroyed. One of the Bio Bio fires also killed the 75-year-old man who refused to evacuate.

Juan Carlos Munoz, the mayor of the town of Cauquenes, said that some 200 families had been affected by the fire and that 30 homes had been destroyed there.

The first of the fires began six days ago in the Torres del Paine National Park in Magallanes, where more than seven per cent of the park had burned, ruining vacations for some of the 150,000 tourists and costing the country millions of dollars in missed tourist profits.

Additionally shares in Arauco's parent company, Copec SA, a paper mill company that was destroyed by the fires, dropped nearly four per cent in Monday trading.

The damage prompted the authorities to declare the region a disaster zone, giving residents access to federal emergency assistance.

President Pinera on Tuesday declared "catastrophe zones" in four regions, after surveying damage caused by wildfires in Chile's forest.

"We have a situation of extreme vulnerability. We declared catastrophe zones in the counties of Florida, Quillon, Ranque and also San Rosendo," Pinera told reporters on the day.

Arson suspected

"We are going to prosecute you with all the force of the world and apply all the weight of the law"

- Chilean President Sebastian Pinera

Despite the unusual weather conditions, authorities have not ruled out the possiblility of arson.

Bio Bio governor Victor Lobos said it was suspicious that eight of Arauco Forest fires started simultaneously in different areas on Friday morning.

Rodrigo Hinzpeter, the interior minister said, "The probability that they were caused intentionally, unfortunately, is not a probability that we can dismiss."

President Pinera on Tuesday issued a stern warning: "I want to assure the people who ... voluntarily started these fires and caused all this damage: We are going to prosecute you with all the force of the world and apply all the weight of the law."

"An Israeli citizen, Rotem Singer, 23, has denied a charge of negligently starting the Torres del Paine fire, but prosecutor Ivan Vidal said Singer's travelling companions said he set fire to toilet paper after going to the bathroom, and then failed to put it out completely.

If convicted, he faces up to 60 days in jail and a $300 fine.

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