Thousands of firefighters and rescuers continued their efforts this Monday (5) to contain the forest fires that caused deaths and destruction for the fourth consecutive day in Chile. According to authorities, at least 122 people died due to the fires, which are already considered one of the three deadliest in the world this century.
The fires gained strength on Friday (2) and spread to residential areas in the cities of Valparaíso and Viña Del Mar, in the central region, surprising residents and consuming hundreds of homes in a few minutes.
“It’s like a war zone, as if a bomb had exploded,” said Jacqueline Atenas, 63, who on Friday had to flee her home in Villa Independencia in the city of Viña del Mar. She returned to the region this Monday carrying a small pink backpack, the only thing he managed to save, and found only debris. “There was a lot of wind, a lot of wind and big balls of fire that were flying by.”
A few meters away, Luis Parra told the Reuters news agency that he barely managed to escape with his wife and grandchildren. When he saw sparks hitting his house, the power was out and they were unable to open the garage door to escape by car. Luckily, he says, a driver friend of the family rescued them.
But Parra’s sister and father, who is blind, died in the fire. The bodies were found a block from the house where they lived. “We never thought this could happen,” he said.
Other residents of Villa Independencia described strong winds and rapidly spreading flames. Ingrid Crespo, 59, said she saw the fire from a distance on Friday and then watched it advance from hill to hill. “Sparks were flying and the wind was blowing like a hurricane,” she said.
Crespo started throwing water on the roof when he saw the flames closer. The effort, however, did not prevent his house from being destroyed by fire. Many of her neighbors were killed, she says, as were her cat and dog. “When my son arrived on Sunday, there were dead bodies,” she said. “There are many dead.”
Chile began a two-day official mourning period on Monday. Hundreds of people are still missing and around 14,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed, according to authorities.
Drone images taken by the Reuters news agency in the Viña del Mar area show entire neighborhoods burned, with residents picking through the remains of houses whose iron roofs had collapsed. In the streets, wrecked cars were scattered across the roads.
On Sunday night (4), the deputy minister of the Interior, Manuel Monsalve, said that there were 165 active fires, a higher number than the 154 registered on Saturday. A curfew was imposed in the worst-hit regions, and military personnel were mobilized to help firefighters contain the fires.
According to a report from the National Forestry Corporation (Conaf), fires were recorded in 290.3 square kilometers on Monday morning, which is equivalent to 19% of the area of the municipality of São Paulo. The region (equivalent to the state) of Valparaíso was the most affected, with 35.1% of active outbreaks.
Monsalve said slightly cooler temperatures and cloud cover could help authorities put out the fires in the coming days. “We’re going to continue to have warm but not extreme temperatures,” he said.
Chile’s investigative police said they are analyzing areas where the fires may have been caused intentionally.
Chile, Argentina and other parts of the southern cone of South America are experiencing a severe heat wave, something experts say will become more common during the southern hemisphere’s summer months due to the climate crisis. The extreme weather in Chilean territory was also exacerbated by the El Nino climate phenomenon, which warms the Pacific Ocean.
Jesica Barrios, who lost her home in Viña del Mar, told Reuters that the fire had arrived “from one moment to the next.” “The fire reached the botanical park and within ten minutes it was upon us,” she said. “There was smoke, the sky turned black, everything was dark. The wind was like a hurricane. It was like being in hell.”
The fires in Chile are among the deadliest of the 21st century, after those that occurred in Australia in 2009 (179 deaths) and those that caused devastation in Hawaii in August 2023 (more than 110 deaths).