Chile is still battling to control around 20 wildfires that have swept through thousands of hectares of land.
|Firefighters have been tackling blazes in rural areas located south of the capital For more than a week [Reuters]|
At least seven Chilean firefighters have been killed and four others injured while battling one of a series of wildfires which the country’s president said were intentionally lit by criminals.
The 11 firefighters, private contractors for forestry company Mininco, were trapped by a blaze raging in a mountainside forest in the Araucania region.
A helicopter succeeded in pulling the four injured to safety. The body of the seventh firefighter killed while trying to contain a blaze was recovered early on Friday.
“The fire suddenly surrounded them because of the wind, they drew closer together, one against another, and saw the fire pass above them,” Miguel Mellado, a local governor, told Canal 13 television.
“It is most probable that the two survivors were those who were underneath,” Mellado said, speaking before Pinera raised the number of survivors to four.
High winds and an unusually hot and dry early summer have seen forest fires ravage large areas of central and southern Chile, burning down scores of homes and destroying about 50,000 hectares of woodland and brush.
Pinera, who pledged his government would do everything possible to find those responsible, evoked anti-terrorism laws that could allow for tougher punishments for anyone found guilty.
“We have reliable information that makes us presume there is criminal intent behind these fires,” President Sebastian Pinera said on Thursday.
“I believe that we ought to combat not only the fires, but also the criminals behind the fires.”
For more than a week, firefighting teams have been tackling a series of blazes in Araucania and the neighbouring Biobio region, rural areas located some 500km to 700 km south of the Chilean capital Santiago.
The only casualty before Thursday was a 75-year-old man who refused to leave his home in the Biobio region.
A five-day blaze in southern Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, a 2,400-square-kilometre nature reserve in the Patagoniansteppe, was brought under control at the weekend.
An Israeli citizen, Rotem Singer, 23, has denied accidentally starting the huge Torres del Paine fire, which razed about 15,000 hectares of prime parkland, by failing to extinguish a burning roll of toilet paper.
Singer, who faces a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail and a fine of $300, has been released from police custody but ordered not to leave Chile until an investigation is complete.
Pinera has blamed the La Nina weather phenomenon and global warming for contributing to drought conditions that helped the fires spread.