Chile’s Interior Minister Carolina Toha said there were currently 92 forest fires burning in the center and south of the country, where temperatures have been unusually high this week.
The deadliest of the fires were occurring in the region of Valparaiso, where authorities urged people not to leave their homes so that fire engines, ambulances and other emergency vehicles can transit with greater ease.
Toha did not offer any details about the 19 people killed.
She said that two fires near the towns of Quilpue and Villa Alemana had burnt through at least 8,000 hectares (19,770 acres) since Friday. One of the fires was threatening the coastal resort town of Vina del Mar, where some neighborhoods have already been badly affected.
In Villa Independencia, a hillside neighborhood on the eastern edge of 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” said Rolando Fernandez, one of the residents who lost his home. He explained that 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,” Fernandez said.
Three shelters have been set up in the Valparaiso region, and 19 helicopters and more than 450 firefighters had been brought into the area to control the blazes, Toha said. Rescue teams were still struggling to reach the most heavily affected neighborhoods, she said.
The fires are burning on mountains that are hard to reach and have affected neighborhoods that were built precariously on the edge of Vina del Mar.
Officials have also reported blackouts as a result of the fire. Toha said that in the region of Valparaiso, four hospitals had to be evacuated as well as three nursing homes for the elderly. The fire also destroyed two bus terminals, the interior minister said.
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. In January, more than 17,000 hectares (42,000 acres) of forests were destroyed in Colombia by fires that followed several weeks of dry weather.