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Raging fires in Chile leave a dozen dead

More than 2,000 homes have been destroyed in a sweeping blaze that overtook Valparaíso

Residents observe the fires from the Ramaditas hilltop.
Residents observe the fires from the Ramaditas hilltop.F. Trueba (EFE)

At least 12 people have been reported dead and 8,000 others left homeless as raging forest fires continued to sweep across the Chilean port city of Valparaíso on Monday.

More than 2,000 homes have been destroyed by the blaze, which is thought to have started sometime on Saturday in a forested ravine next to ramshackle housing on one of the city’s 42 hilltops, according to Interior Minister Rodrigo Peñailillo.

“We hope that in the next 48 to 72 hours firefighters will have the flames under control,” he said. The cause of the fire is still unknown.

High winds mixed with dry vegetation helped the fire spread quickly throughout the outlying communities surrounding Chile’s picturesque port city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is located some 120 kilometers west of the capital Santiago.

“It’s a tremendous tragedy. This could be the worst fire in the city’s history”

Firefighters are focusing their efforts on four main areas – the community of Las Torres and the hills of Rocuant, Mariposa, Yungay and Jiménez – where the blaze is mostly located. Helicopters and planes dumped water and other extinguishing materials on the flames but have had little success controlling the disaster.

Peñailillo said that 1,200 people who have had to be evacuated from these areas have been taken to 28 emergency shelters. Although the minister did say that the death toll could rise in the coming days, he didn’t want to speculate on how many people were still caught in the dangerous areas.

Hundreds of people who fled their homes over the weekend began returning – against the advice of the authorities – to investigate the damage. “People should not return at this time to the areas that have been extinguished,” said the Valparaíso mayor, Jorge Castro.

The fire destroyed some 850 hectares of land.

Schools were closed Monday in the city, since some were damaged and others were overflowing with evacuees.

President Michelle Bachelet, who has been touring shelters in the area, cancelled her plans to visit Argentina and Uruguay — what was to be her first trip abroad since she was sworn in last month. She was expected to meet with emergency officials and ministers on Monday. “It’s a tremendous tragedy. This could be the worst fire in the city’s history,” she said.

This has been the second major natural disaster she has had to deal with just weeks into her second term. Earlier this month, an 8.2-magnitude earthquake in Chile’s north coastal region triggered a tsunami warning along the Pacific shoreline.

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