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Extreme heat drives Chile wildfires leaving at least 51 dead

PhysicsExtreme heat drives Chile wildfires leaving at least 51 dead


Vehicles and homes burn during a fire in Viña del Mar, Chile, on February 2, 2024.

Chileans Sunday feared a rise in the death toll from wildfires blazing across the South American country that have already killed at least 51 people, leaving bodies in the street and homes gutted.

Authorities warned Sunday of “complicated” conditions as they battled fires in the coastal tourist region of Valparaiso amid an intense summer heat wave, with temperatures soaring to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) over the weekend.

Dense gray smoke blanketed the city of Vina del Mar on the country’s central coast Saturday, forcing residents to flee.

Rosana Avendano, a 63-year-old kitchen assistant, was away from home when the fire began to sweep through the El Olivar neighborhood, where she lives with her husband.

“It was terrible because I couldn’t get (to my house). The fire came here… we lost everything,” Avendano told AFP.

“My husband was lying down and began to feel the heat of the fire coming and he ran away.”

She feared the worst for hours, but eventually was able to contact her spouse.

At least 51 people have been killed, authorities said, including six who succumbed to their injuries after being rescued.

Death toll could rise

President Gabriel Boric, who declared a state of emergency, warned the number of victims would likely increase, pledging government support to help people get back on their feet after he flew over the affected area in a helicopter Saturday afternoon.

Firefighters at work in the hills of Valparaiso region on February 3, 2024
Firefighters at work in the hills of Valparaiso region on February 3, 2024.

According to the national disaster service, SENAPRED, nearly 26,000 hectares (64,000) acres had been burned across the central and southern regions by Sunday.

SENAPRED chief Alvaro Hormazabal said firefighters were battling 34 blazes as of Sunday morning, with 43 under control.

Weather “conditions are going to continue to be complicated,” Hormazabal said.

Authorities imposed had a curfew beginning at 9:00 pm Saturday (0000 GMT Sunday), while thousands in the affected areas were ordered to evacuate their homes.

In the hillsides around Vina del Mar, AFP reporters saw entire blocks of houses that were burned out overnight Friday into Saturday.

Some of the dead were seen lying on the road, covered by sheets.

‘Inferno’

The fires, blazing for days, forced authorities on Friday to close the road linking the Valparaiso region to the capital Santiago, about 1.5 hours away, as a huge mushroom cloud of smoke impaired visibility.

  • President Gabriel Boric has declared a state of emergency as fires rage across parts of central and southern Chile
    President Gabriel Boric has declared a state of emergency as fires rage across parts of central and southern Chile.
  • The fires have enveloped Valparaiso in a thick mushroom cloud of smoke
    The fires have enveloped Valparaiso in a thick mushroom cloud of smoke.
  • A man douses a burned building with water in Quilpe, where wildfires blazed through the night
    A man douses a burned building with water in Quilpe, where wildfires blazed through the night.
  • Aerial view of the aftermath of a fire in the hills around Vina del Mar, Chile
    Aerial view of the aftermath of a fire in the hills around Vina del Mar, Chile.

Images posted online from trapped motorists showed mountains in flames at the end of the famous “Route 68” leading to the Pacific coast.

According to Interior Minister Carolina Toha, the weekend blazes have been “without a doubt” the deadliest fire event in Chile’s history.

“This was an inferno,” Rodrigo Pulgar, from the town of El Olivar, told AFP. “I tried to help my neighbor… my house was starting to burn behind us. It was raining ash.”

The fires are being driven by a summer heat wave and drought affecting the southern part of South America caused by the El Niño weather phenomenon, as scientists warn that a warming planet has increased the risk of natural disasters such as intense heat and fires.

The rising temperatures threaten to engulf more of South America, as brigades in Argentina have been fighting a fire that has consumed more than 3,000 hectares in Los Alerces National Park, famed for its beauty and biodiversity, since January 25.

© 2024 AFP

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Extreme heat drives Chile wildfires leaving at least 51 dead (2024, May 5)
retrieved 6 May 2024
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