On Sunday, the death toll from the intense wildfires in central Chile surged to a minimum of 112 individuals, following President Gabriel Boric’s caution that the figure was likely to increase significantly as rescue teams combed through devastated neighborhoods. The fires have forced the main road to close, linking Valparaiso’s coastal tourist region to Santiago, about 1.5 hours away, as a giant mushroom cloud of smoke hindered visibility. Authorities have extended curfews in cities heavily affected by the blazes and reported that thousands of homes have been damaged.
The government has declared a state of emergency, and Boric said he was ready to send the full force of the military if necessary. He also urged the public to remain calm and obey evacuation orders.
Hundreds of firefighters and police officers were working to contain the flames, and some residents have already been evacuated from their homes. The fires broke out during an intense summer heat wave, with temperatures soaring to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) over the weekend. The cyclical weather phenomenon known as El Nino has exacerbated droughts across western South America, creating conditions ripe for forest fires.
The blazes are spreading fast, and many areas have been engulfed in a thick cloud of black smoke. One witness, Rodrigo Pulgar, 61, told the AFP news agency that fires were devouring his village of El Olivar and that it was “like hell” when he tried to help neighbors escape. The flames engulfed his home, and he was left trapped inside. he said that his elderly neighbor died because she couldn’t get out in time.
Officials have issued a health alert for those living in the worst-hit area and have ordered hospitals to suspend elective surgeries. They have also authorized temporary field hospitals and are hiring medicine students nearing the end of their studies to help ease the strain on health services.
The fires have been fueled by high winds and dry conditions caused by the hotter-than-normal weather, and many houses have been destroyed. Firefighters have been using water planes to drop thousands of liters of liquid, but the flames are too intense for the effort to be effective.
Chile’s national radio and television broadcasters have announced that they will broadcast live coverage of the disaster. President Boric flew over some devastated areas on Sunday and visited a school that has been turned into a shelter for displaced families. He also promised two days of mourning. Earlier, the president declared an emergency and ordered a curfew in the most affected cities. He also said he was sending the full force of the army if needed and that a vacation home in Vina del Mar that he uses for his holidays would be temporarily converted into a leisure center for children of displaced families. The government has also urged Chileans to avoid traveling to the affected region.