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Valparaiso declared a catastrophe zone as a wildfire burns the Chilean port city

A large forest fire has destroyed at least 500 homes in a Chilean port city. President Michelle Bachelet declared Valparaiso a catastrophe zone and put the military in charge of evacuations and maintaining order.

Valparaiso Mayor Jorge Castro told Chile's state television channel that residents had choked on smoke as the fire of unknown origin continued to burn. Castro said that Chile had set up shelters for those forced to flee the fire in the city about 120 kilometers (70 miles) to the northwest of the capital, Santiago. At least four people have died.

Late Saturday night local time, Castro said that "Valparaiso is without electricity at the moment and this means the flame column is creating a Dante-esque panorama and is advancing in an apparently uncontrollable manner."

Though first responders have arrived from Santiago to Valparaiso, Chile's main port city, winds of up to 40 kilometers per hour (25 mph) have kept blaze-fighting planes and helicopters at bay. Authorities have so far evacuated more than 5,000 people and expect the toll of the destruction to continue growing. The fire has also led to blackouts and drinking-water cutoffs.

"Because of the climatic conditions, this is a very complex situation," National Emergency Office Regional Director Guillermo de la Maza told reporters. "The wind is playing tricks on us. The fire remains active. The evacuation is our priority along with controling the blaze."

Less than two weeks ago, a series of

strong earthquakes hit northern Chile,

beginning with a

massive 8.2-magnitude temblor.

mkg/hc (Reuters, dpa, AP)

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