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Forest fires kill at least 19 people in Chile with fears they will spread in densely populated areas | World News

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At least 19 people have been killed by forest fires in central Chile that have destroyed about 1,100 homes. 

The death toll could rise as rescue teams reach the most heavily affected areas in the Valparaiso region, officials said on Saturday.

Chile’s interior minister Carolina Toha said there were 92 forest fires burning in the centre and south of the country, affecting 43,000 hectares.

She said authorities’ biggest concern was that some of the fires were developing very close to densely populated areas, “with the very high potential to affect people, homes and facilities”.

Wildfires are not uncommon in Chile over summer. Fires during last year’s record heatwave left 27 people dead and more than 400,000 hectares burnt.

“The area with fires today is much smaller than last year [but] at this time the number of hectares affected is multiplying very rapidly,” Ms Toha said.

A house burns following the spread of wildfires in Vina del Mar, Chile February 3, 2024. REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido
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Pic: Reuters

One of the fires was threatening the coastal resort town of Vina del Mar, she said, where some areas have already been badly affected.

In Villa Independencia, a hillside neighbourhood in the east of the town, several blocks of homes and businesses were completely destroyed. Burnt-out cars with broken windows lined the streets, which were covered in ashes.

“I’ve been here 32 years, and never imagined this would happen” Rolando Fernandez, who lost his home, told the Associated Press news agency.

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Burnt-out houses in Villa Independencia  neighborhood in Vina del Mar. Pic: AP
Image:
Burnt-out houses in the Villa Independencia area of Vina del Mar. Pic: AP

He said he first saw the fire burning on a nearby hill on Friday afternoon. Within 15 minutes the area was engulfed in flames and smoke, forcing everyone to run for their lives.

“I’ve worked my whole life, and now I’m left with nothing,” he said.

Three shelters have been set up in the Valparaiso region, where four hospitals and three nursing homes had to be evacuated.

The El Nino weather pattern has caused droughts and hotter-than-usual temperatures along the west of South America this year, increasing the risk of forest fires.

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