The tragedy of Viña del Mar: Chile’s ‘garden city’ reduced to smoke, ashes and despair

The death toll from the fires in the Valparaíso region is at least 122, but authorities warn that the number will continue to rise

Incendio en Chile
People collect debris after the fires, February 4.AILEN DÍAZ (EFE)

Downtown Viña del Mar, one of Chile’s most popular tourist destinations, was a ghost city at 6 p.m. on a summer’s day. The curfew decreed by Gabriel Boric’s government in one of the areas worst-affected by the deadliest fires the country has experienced in the last decade — at least 122 people have died, according to the latest report — meant visitors and residents alike were confined behind closed doors. At night, only a few homeless people were out, but outnumbered by police cars patrolling to ensure the curfew is complied with to facilitate aid crews and avoid new outbreaks of flames.

In the hills of Chile’s so-called ‘garden city’ the situation is different. Residents of Villa Rukan, Villa Dulce or Palto Miraflores have organized themselves in the streets to prevent looting or the taking of their lands. The fear of new outbreaks of fire persists: the suspicion that the forest fires were intentional, as the authorities have stated, has not been dispelled. The tragedy, said Boric, is the greatest that Chile has seen since the great earthquake and tsunami of February 27, 2010, which caused hundreds of victims. “We are facing a tragedy of very great magnitude,” he said. We are together, all of us, fighting the emergency. The priority is to save lives.” The president has declared two days of national mourning starting this Monday.

People receive clothing and water from volunteers at a makeshift camp in Viña del Mar.
People receive clothing and water from volunteers at a makeshift camp in Viña del Mar.AILEN DÍAZ (EFE)

Some 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Viña del Mar, smoke and the smell of scorched earth stings the eyes and dries the throat. The vestiges of the voracious forest fire at the height of Peñuelas, where some small outbreaks are still visible — apparently partially controlled by the improvement in weather conditions — mark the entrance to the region of Valparaíso, around 120 kilometers (74 miles) from Santiago. Those affected are demand the intervention of the military which, by order of President Boric, has been deployed in the most-affected areas. Many, though, have not yet seen the troops. They are anxiously awaiting a third night since the flames devastated thousands of houses and hectares of forest.

Boric, who visited the region on Sunday, announced that only the Medical Legal Service (SML) — the government agency in charge of identifications — will be the only authority to report on the number of deceased. Chile awaits each one of the reports with anguish: the number of victims has been steadily rising. Shortly before 2 p.m. on Sunday 64 fatalities had been reported; nine hours later the death toll stood at 112.

Undersecretary of the Interior Manuel Monsalve said only 32 of the deceased had been identified and that 38 autopsies have been performed by the SML, which has been reinforced with forensic doctors drafted in from across the country. In addition, 10 bodies are ready to be handed over to their families. In view of the scale of the tragedy, Boric said on Sunday afternoon that the number of fatalities “is going to grow significantly,” to prepare Chilean society for the worst.

The number of damaged and destroyed homes has also been increasing. Monsalve reported a projection of up to 12,000 in Viña del Mar — affecting some 31,000 people — and 2,000 in Quilpué — more than 7,000 people.

The wildfires have hit the central-southern part of the country, but especially the region of Valparaíso. In Viña del Mar it has not yet been possible, due to the intensity of the damage, to collect, quantify and identify all the remains of those who have died in the flames since Friday night: many victims were overrun by the fires while fleeing. The priority for the government, said Minister of the Interior Carolina Tohá, has been to save lives and extinguish the blazes.

To these, two further tasks have been added: to get aid to the survivors and to determine the total number of victims. “Hopefully we can recover the bodies of most of the victims today,” Tohá said Sunday, adding that the task was very complex to carry out on Saturday because of the difficulty of gaining access to those areas still affected by the fires.

The charred remains of two cars on the side of a road on Sunday in Viña del Mar.
The charred remains of two cars on the side of a road on Sunday in Viña del Mar.SOFIA YANJARI (REUTERS)

The mayor of Viña del Mar, Macarena Ripamonti, reported that the number of missing persons has reached 190, but that information has not been confirmed by the central authorities who, grouped within the Committee for Disaster Risk Management (Cogrid), carry out various assessments every day.

In the middle of summer, the cities of Viña del Mar, Quilpué, Limache, and Villa Alemana have been under curfews since Friday night, a measure that will possibly be maintained for several more days, Boric said, while the authorities seek to help the emergency services, facilitate evacuations when necessary and to protect what little remains standing from looting. Among the ashes and destruction, there have been reports of theft from the victims of the fires.

The Prosecutor’s Office has already initiated an investigation in the Las Tablas sector, in Pueñuelas, where the fire started on Friday. Boric has said that he has instructed “all information” to be gathered. “It is difficult to think that there could exist such miserable and heartless people capable of generating so much death and pain but, if these people exist, we will look for them, we will find them, and they will have to face the repudiation not only of the whole society but also the full weight of the law,” the president said.

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