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Death toll in Chile wildfires rises to 112

February 5, 2024

Responders continued to battle fires in the coastal tourist region of Valparaiso amid an intense summer heat wave. Authorities expect the death toll to rise further as hundreds of people are still unaccounted for.

Firefighters work at the Botanical Garden after a forest fire in Vila del Mar on February 4, 2024
Authorities have called in the military to help firefighters to tackle the wildfiresImage: Javier Torres/AFP

The death toll from intense wildfires raging in central Chile has climbed to at least 112.

The Interior Ministry said late Sunday that the medical examiner's office had received 112 dead victims, 32 of whom have been identified, and that there are 40 fires still active in the country.

The AFP news agency reported that some of the dead were seen lying on the road, covered by sheets.

"I've been talking to residents here over the last hour or so and everybody's been saying that they keep finding bodies and these are bodies that have not been included in the official death count," journalist John Bartlett, who is near the city of Valparaiso, told DW on Sunday.

Wildfires in Chile: Death toll keeps rising

Scores of fires still burning

Chile's forestry authority registered 159 fires across the country on Sunday, covering an area totaling almost 28,000 hectares.

Officials said that thousands of houses have been damaged or destroyed, including more than 3,000 in the Valparaíso region alone, home to some 1.8 million people.

The coastal region west of the capital Santiago is the worst affected, where authorities have introduced a curfew starting at 9:00 p.m. Saturday (0000 GMT Sunday).

The fires forced authorities to close the road linking Valparaiso to Santiago on Friday, as a huge mushroom cloud of smoke impaired visibility.

The wildfires are now reported to be lapping the outer edges of the cities of Vina del Mar and Valparaiso, coastal cities popular with tourists.

President visits affected area

President Gabriel Boric, who traveled to the disaster zone Sunday to meet with victims, called it the "worst tragedy our country has experienced" since an earthquake in 2010 left more than 520 people dead.

"The most important thing now is to save lives and put out the fires," he said, offering his support to victims at a hospital in the city of Vina del Mar.

The president announced two days of national mourning starting on Monday in honor of the victims, having declared a state of emergency to free up relief funds on Friday.

Authorities warned of "complicated" conditions as they continued to battle fires.

The military has been deployed to help firefighters stem the spread of fires, while helicopters dumped water to try to douse the flames from the air.

Temperatures in the area hit 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) over the weekend.

Chileans recovering from 2023 fires prepare for more to come

Hundreds still unaccounted for

Interior Minister Carolina Toha warned of an even higher death toll, adding that more than 300 people were still missing.

Toha said there was evidence that the fire near Valparaíso was started deliberately.

Journalist John Bartlett told DW that authorities have launched investigations into how the fires began.

"There seems to have been four or five individual points from where the fires started, which does seem to point to them being started intentionally," he said.

The Interior Ministry also said it had "serious information" that the fires had been started deliberately. In the Maule region to the south, a person was arrested for starting a fire while welding.

People walk past burned vehicles after a forest fire in Quilpue, Vila del Mar, Chile, on February 4, 2024
A state of emergency has been declared and the country will mark two days of national mourning from MondayImage: Rodrigo Arangua/AFP

In the Southern Hemisphere during the summer months, major forest fires are a frequent occurrence.

Last year, more than 425,000 hectares of land were destroyed in the center and south of Chile. At least 26 people were killed.

This year's fires are being driven by a summer heatwave and drought caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon.

Meanwhile, firefighters in Argentina have been tackling a blaze that has consumed more than 3,000 hectares in Los Alerces National Park since January 25.

mm/sri (AFP, dpa, Reuters)