CNN

More than 120 killed by raging wildfires in Chile as authorities warn toll will rise

Feb 5, 2024, 11:30 AM

Lines of traffic on Route 68, a road leading to the coast. Mandatory Credit: Bomberos de Chile...

Lines of traffic on Route 68, a road leading to the coast. Mandatory Credit: Bomberos de Chile

(CNN) — Devastating wildfires tearing through swaths of Chile have killed more than 120 people, authorities said Monday, as they warned that the death toll was set to rise.

At least 122 people have died so far, the Legal Medical Services of the city of Valparaiso said Monday. Officials also said that 32 bodies have been identified, 40 autopsies have been conducted, and 10 bodies are ready to be delivered to relatives.

News agency photographs and footage over the weekend laid bare the trail of destruction wrought in multiple communities by the infernos. Aerial shots from the El Olivar commune showed dozens of vehicles burned to shells alongside multiple houses reduced to ash. One video obtained by CNN showed the inside of a bus ferrying passengers through the city of Valparaíso as fires raged outside.

There are currently 161 active fires burning across the country, the Chilean National Disaster Prevention and Response Service (SENAPRED) said.

SENAPRED Director Álvaro Hormazábal told CNN affiliate CNN Chile that firefighters had controlled 102 of those fires but are still battling 40 others. Nineteen wildfires are under currently observation, Hormazábal added.

President Gabriel Boric declared a state of emergency as coastal cities like Viña del Mar and Valparaiso choked in smoke. Residents living in central regions were also forced to evacuate their homes. Speaking at a press conference held after visiting affected areas on Sunday, Boric raised fears that the death toll would “increase significantly.”

In a televised statement on Saturday, Boric said that the defense ministry would deploy more military units to affected areas, with all necessary resources made available.

He declared Monday and Tuesday as days of national mourning for fire victims.

The human-caused climate crisis is making heat waves and droughts, which fuel wildfires, more frequent and intense. The world is also currently experiencing the El Niño phenomenon, boosting temperatures even further.

Wildfires have intensified around the globe, providing a stark reminder of how the climate crisis is upending lives and inflicting billions of dollars a year in damage. And it will only get worse, according to experts. “Uncontrollable and devastating wildfires are becoming an expected part of the seasonal calendars in many parts of the world,” the UN Environment Programme said in a report published in 2022.

The number of extreme wildfire events will increase up to 14% by 2030, according to the UN report. By 2050, the increase will climb to 30%.

In Chile, the fires come as the country battles a summer heatwave. The capital Santiago has been sweltering through consecutive days of hot and dry temperatures climbing above 33 degrees Celsius (91.4°F).

Neighboring Colombia battled recent wildfires, declaring a disaster and also calling for international help to fight the flames.

Emergency crews on the ground in Chile are prioritizing the fires in the port city of Valparaíso because of its proximity to urban areas. Local officials said 372 residents were reported missing.

Located about 70 miles (113 kilometers) northwest of the capital Santiago on Chile’s coast, Valparaiso is a popular tourist destination known for its colorful houses, idyllic hills and its historic old town.

Valeria Melipillán, mayor of Quilpué city, the capital of the Marga Marga Province in central Chile’s Valparaíso Region, told CNN Chile that the wildfires are “probably the largest ever” in the region. Nearly 1,400 houses in the municipality have been damaged, Melipillán added.

Chile’s Finance Minister Mario Marcel told reporters on Sunday that preliminary estimates for damages in the Valaparaíso region was expected to reach “hundreds of millions of dollars.”

While evacuation efforts had been efficient, some living in affected areas did not want to vacate their homes, local search and rescue officials said.

Rodrigo Mundaca, the governor of Valparaiso, said curfews were in place in the towns of Viña del Mar, Quilpué, Villa Alemana and Limache to allow authorities to focus on battling the blazes.

Pope Francis, who hails from nearby Argentina, called upon people to “pray for the deceased and injured victims of the devastating fires that have affected central Chile.”

At least one person has been detained so far in connection to the wildfires, CNN Chile reported.

According to police, the man was at his home in the city of Talca in central Chile doing welding work when a fire accidentally started and spread to nearby grasslands.

The suspect will be arraigned on Sunday in Talca, according to the Maule Prosecutor’s Office.

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More than 120 killed by raging wildfires in Chile as authorities warn toll will rise