Raging forest fires in central-south Chile have killed at least 11 people, displaced thousands and destroyed entire villages, according to the government.
The burn area has doubled over the past two days to 3,870 square kilometres, according to the national forestry agency CONAF.
It said 130 fires were still burning in the centre and south of the country, with 61 out of control. High temperatures of more than 35 degrees Celsius and strong winds also were hindering attempts to douse them.
So far five firefighters, two policemen and three local residents have been killed while battling the blazes.
“We have never seen something of this size, never in Chile’s history. And the truth is the [firefighting] forces are doing everything that is humanly possible and will continue to do so until the fires are contained and controlled,” President Michelle Bachelet said, as she visited the hard-hit Maule region, earlier this week.
Using buckets, garden hoses, and branches, frantic locals have been joining in efforts to tackle the fire to save their homes, animals and farmland.
“It’s hell. It’s chaos,” said Fernando Calkin, a fire volunteer. “We have been here for 11 days, and it is time for it to stop. There are some days I’d like to rest, but I can’t stay at home watching the fire on TV.”
In Santa Olga, a town of 5,000 in Maule, 1,000 homes were destroyed, Mayor Carlos Valenzuela told local media. The town of Hualane, 70km to the north, was also under threat.
More than 4,000 firefighters were working to douse the flames, according to Bachelet who said that at least some of the fires may have been started intentionally. A number of people have been arrested in relation to ongoing investigations.
International help from France, the United States, Peru and Mexico has been pouring into Chile as the fires swept through forested hills and into neighbouring towns, scorching homes, industry and the region’s world-renowned vineyards. The country last week declared a state of emergency.
The forestry industry has also been affected, with smaller outfits the most vulnerable.