More than 60 people killed as forest fires rage in Chile

The authorities expect the death toll to rise; blaze in tourist area of Valparaiso has forced many to flee their homes.

At least 64 people have been killed in Chile as intense forest fires in the centre of the country triggered a state of emergency and the authorities extended curfews  in the worst-affected cities.

The death toll was expected to rise from the blazes that broke out two days ago. In a televised speech to the nation on Sunday, President Gabriel Boric said: “We know that figure is going to grow, it’s going to grow significantly.”

The fires come in the middle of a heatwave and as tens of thousands of Chileans have been heading to the coastal region of Valparaiso for their summer holidays. Traffic snarls on the main highway were hindering the mobility of firefighters and ambulances.

Boric said earlier overnight curfews were in place to help to “free up the roads for emergency vehicles, but also so that people who must be evacuated can do so as quickly as possible”.

Reporting from Santiago, Al Jazeera’s Lucia Newman said that “firefighters are struggling to contain the fires that are spreading out of control in a highly populated part of the coastal Valparaiso region”.

The fires have been burning with the highest intensity around the city of Vina del Mar, where a famous botanical garden founded in 1931 was destroyed by the flames on Sunday. At least 1,600 people were left without homes.

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A man sits near the remains of burnt houses following the spread of wildfires in Vina del Mar, Chile, February 3, 2024 [Sofia Yanjari/Reuters]

Arson suspected

“The government says it will investigate arson as the cause of these deadly fires,” Newman reported, adding that the president said “the priority is to save lives”.

Officials said 200 people have been reported missing in Vina del Mar and the surrounding area. The city of 300,000 people is a popular beach resort and also hosts a famous music festival during the southern hemisphere’s summer.

The fires have ravaged thousands of hectares of forest since Friday, cloaking coastal cities in a dense fog of grey smoke and forcing people to flee their homes in the central regions of Vina del Mar and Valparaiso.

Rodrigo Mundaca, the governor of the Valparaiso region, said on Sunday that he believed some of the fires could have been intentionally caused.

“These fires began in four points that lit up simultaneously,” Mundaca said. “As authorities, we will have to work rigorously to find who is responsible.”

The fires around Vina del Mar began in mountainous forested areas that are hard to reach. But they have moved into densely populated neighbourhoods on the city’s periphery despite efforts by the authorities to slow down the flames.

Interior Minister Carolina Toha said: “We have reports from other places where there are indications that there may be more people dead, but we do not have confirmation on the ground.”

Al Jazeera’s Newman said the government was also trying to prevent looting.

“Thousands of people have been forced to evacuate in just minutes, but some, especially elderly people with limited mobility, could not escape in time,” Newman said.

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Residents help firefighters during a forest fire affecting the hills in Quilpue, Chile, on Saturday, February 3, 2024 [Rodrigo Arangua /AFP]

The blaze is being driven by a summer heatwave and drought affecting the southern part of South America caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon, as scientists warn that a warming planet has increased the risk of natural disasters such as intense heat and fires.

Throughout the country, there were 92 active fires, leaving more than 43,000 hectares (106,255 acres) affected by the incident, Toha said.

In the towns of La Estrella and Navidad, southwest of the capital, the fires have burned nearly 30 homes and forced evacuations near the surfing resort of Pichilemu.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” 63-year-old Yvonne Guzman told the AFP news agency. When the flames started to close in on her home in Quilpue, she and her elderly mother fled, only to find themselves trapped in traffic for hours.

“It’s very distressing because we’ve evacuated the house but we can’t move forward. There are all these people trying to get out and who can’t move,” Guzman said.

As Chile and Colombia battle rising temperatures, the heatwave is also threatening to sweep over Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil in the coming days.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies