Days after devastating wildfires swept through Chile’s Pacific Coast, officials said on Sunday that at least 64 people had been killed and hundreds remained missing and warned that the number of dead could rise exponentially.
“That number is going to go up, we know it’s going to go up significantly,” President Gabriel Boric said on Sunday, describing the fires as the worst disaster in the country since a devastating earthquake in 2010 left more than 400 people dead and displaced 1.5 million.
Thousands of homes were destroyed in the fires, which swept through the coastal hills toward the resort of Viña del Mar starting Friday, propelled by high winds.
The fires came as many were vacationing in Viña del Mar in the country’s Valparaíso region, and roared through hillside settlements where many older residents were not able to escape.
Omar Castro Vázquez, whose home was destroyed in the settlement of El Olivar, said a neighbor in is 80s had died in the fire.
“It was more like a nuclear bomb than a fire,” said Mr. Castro, 72. “There’s nothing left.”
The destruction in Valparaíso comes as dozens of fires are burning across central and southern Chile, amid what officials have said are higher-than-normal temperatures for this time of year.
Several other countries in South America have also struggled to contain wildfires. In Colombia, fires erupted in several parts of the country in recent weeks, including around the capital city of Bogotá, amid a spell of dry weather.
Firefighters have also been battling blazes in Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina.
The cyclical climate phenomenon known as El Niño has caused droughts and high temperatures through parts of the continent, creating conditions that experts say are ripe for forest fires.
At dawn on Sunday, bands of smoke clung to the hillsides above Viña del Mar. Along the highway to the coast, banks of earth and bridges were charred and tree stumps smoldered on the hillsides. The charred husks of cars littered the roads.
Early signs point to flawed evacuation orders, which some residents said may have contributed to the casualty count.
Photographs posted on X, the social platform formerly known as Twitter, showed long lines of burned cars that appeared to have been engulfed in flames as people attempted to leave, drawing comparisons to the botched evacuation during last year’s fire in Lahaina, Hawaii.
Mr. Castro Vázquez, of El Olivar, said residents had fled to a local square when a cellphone alert came through at about 6 p.m. on Friday. They weren’t given any instructions beyond that about having to flee, he said.
Black smoke plumed over a hill from a botanical gardens on the other side of the hill, he said, and within minutes their community was engulfed in tall orange flames.
Another resident, Andrés Calderón, 40, said several people in the neighborhood hadn’t wanted to leave their homes, fearing that thieves would burglarize them.
On Friday, he received the alert, jumped into his car and drove through smoke so thick he said he had to turn on his headlights.
“It was like entering hell,’’ Mr. Calderón said. “I couldn’t see, the wind was blowing the car almost off the road. I just kept driving.”
On Sunday, the densely-built area had been reduced to rubble. The roadsides were covered in corrugated metal sheets and debris pushed into piles, everything blackened and smelling of smoke.
Mr. Castro, a retired dockworker, said he had lost all of his clothes, possessions, documents and a chunk of his pension, which he had withdrawn and kept in cash.
Residents helped one another remove rubble and burned appliances from the shells of homes. Some wore motorbike gloves, others gardening gloves.
“I haven’t cried, I haven’t come to terms with it. I’m just focused on cleaning my house and my neighbor’s,” he said. “We’re broken.”
The mayor of Viña del Mar, Macarena Ripamonti, said at a news conference on Sunday morning that as of Saturday night, 372 people there were missing. She said officials would ensure that the bodies of those who died in the fires were removed as quickly as possible.
“They are our neighbors, they’re our family, they are our friends, they are people from Viña del Mar. That moves the population,” she said. “People are living through the worst situation.”
Natalie Alcoba contributed reporting from Buenos Aires.