Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Chile fires kill dozens, thousands of homes destroyed

Dozens of fires are burning across central and southern Chile, amid what officials have said are higher-than-normal temperatures for this time of year.

Several other countries in South America have also struggled to contain blazes. In Colombia, fires erupted in several parts of the country in recent weeks, including around the capital city of Bogotá, amid a spell of dry weather.

Firefighters have also been battling blazes in Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina.

The cyclical climate phenomenon known as El Nino has caused droughts and high temperatures through parts of the continent, creating conditions that experts say are ripe for forest fires.

Officials are warning of major destruction and loss of life after fast-moving fires swept through Chile.

Officials are warning of major destruction and loss of life after fast-moving fires swept through Chile.Credit: Cristóbal Olivares/The New York Times

At dawn on Sunday (Santiago time), bands of smoke clung to the hillsides above Viña del Mar. Along the highway to the coast, banks of earth and bridges were charred and tree stumps smouldered on the hillsides. The charred husks of cars littered the roads.

Interior Minister Carolina Tohá said authorities hoped that improved conditions – lower temperatures, higher humidity and less wind – would help firefighters to quell hot spots and rescue workers to reach charred areas to remove bodies.

Early signs point to flawed evacuation orders, which some residents said may have contributed to the casualty count.

Photographs posted on X, the social platform formerly known as Twitter, showed long lines of burnt cars that appeared to have been engulfed in flames as people attempted to leave, drawing comparisons to the botched evacuation during last year’s fire in Lahaina, Hawaii.

Houses destroyed by thefires in El Olivar, part of Viña del Mar, Valparaíso region, Chile.

Houses destroyed by thefires in El Olivar, part of Viña del Mar, Valparaíso region, Chile.Credit: Cristóbal Olivares/The New York Times

Castro Vázquez said residents had fled to a local square when a mobile phone alert came through about 6pm on Friday (Santiago time). They weren’t given any instructions beyond being told to flee, he said.

Black smoke plumed over a hill from a botanical gardens on the other side, he said, and within minutes their community was engulfed in tall orange flames.

In the hills around Viña del Mar, police and medical examiners started to arrive. Police officers picked through the rubble, asking locals if they had seen bodies.

Some survivors said they saw people swallowed by flames two stories high. Others described seeing bodies littering staircases.

Many residents in the settlements said they had been stranded without help or even information since their mobile phone batteries had run out and the power had gone out. They had been largely left on their own to respond to the disaster. Shelters set up for evacuees were too far away to be useful, many said.

Another resident, Andrés Calderón, 40, said several people in the neighbourhood hadn’t wanted to leave their homes, fearing thieves would burgle them.

Calderón received the alert, jumped into his car and drove through smoke so thick he said he had to turn on his headlights.

“It was like entering hell. I couldn’t see, the wind was blowing the car almost off the road. I just kept driving.”

Uberlinda Silva weeps in the remains of her house.

Uberlinda Silva weeps in the remains of her house.Credit: Cristóbal Olivares/The New York Times

The densely built area had since been reduced to rubble. The roadsides were covered in corrugated metal sheets and debris pushed into piles, everything blackened and smelling of smoke.

Castro, a retired dockworker, said he had lost all of his clothes, possessions, documents and a chunk of his pension, which he had withdrawn and kept in cash.

Residents helped one another remove rubble and burnt appliances from the shells of homes. Some wore motorbike gloves, others gardening gloves.

“I haven’t cried, I haven’t come to terms with it. I’m just focused on cleaning my house and my neighbour’s,” he said. “We’re broken.”

Residents embrace amid the destruction.

Residents embrace amid the destruction.Credit: NYT

The mayor of Viña del Mar, Macarena Ripamonti, said that as of Sunday (AEDT), 372 people there were missing. She said officials would ensure the bodies of those who died in the fires were removed as quickly as possible.

“They are our neighbours, they’re our family, they are our friends, they are people from Viña del Mar. That moves the population,” she said. “People are living through the worst situation.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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