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Death toll rises as wildfire consumes Chilean town

January 27, 2017

Santa Olga has been left in ruins as ferocious fires continue to ravage Chile. Large bushfires have devastated wide swaths of the South American country since November, killing 10 and displacing thousands.

Chile Stadt Santa Olga durch Waldbrände zerstört
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/E. Felix

Raging wildfires completely consumed the Chilean town of Santa Olga Thursday night, raising the death toll from one of the country's worst forest fires to at least 10.

A series of fast-spreading blazes have engulfed large parts of central Chile since November, fanned by strong winds, hot temperatures and prolonged drought. Official figures estimate that some 240,000 hectares (680,000 acres) of forest and agricultural land have since been destroyed in the last week.

The body of one unidentified person was recovered from ashes on Thursday after flames had destroyed about 1,000 homes in Santa Olga, located around 360 kilometers (220 miles) south of the capital, Santiago. Some 6,000 residents fled the city. 

Chile Stadt Santa Olga durch Waldbrände zerstört
Emergency services have often found they are able to do little more than watch on as bushfires spread through the country's central regions.Image: Reuters/R. Garrido

"This is an extremely serious situation - of horror, a nightmare without an end," said the mayor of the neighboring coastal city of Constitucion. "Everything burned."

Among the bodies recovered so far since the fires began were five firefighters, two police officers and three residents.

Flames outpace rescue efforts

More than 4,000 firefighters are currently battling the blaze with the help of supertanker aircraft. Frantic locals have also joined in the efforts to tackle blazes, desperate to save their homes, livestock and farmland.

However, emergency workers often find themselves outpaced by the ferocity of the flames, as winds and smoldering ash continue to spread the fires.

Chile Stadt Santa Olga durch Waldbrände zerstört
"A nightmare without an end": Thousands of people across central Chile have seen their livelihoods destroyed in the past week.Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/E. Felix

Among the most devastated areas are the regions of O'Higgins and Maule, Chile's top wine-making region. However, also badly hit are the south-central rural regions of Bio Bio and Araucania, two important timber provinces and home to the majority of Chile's Mapuche Indigenous people.

Chile requests international aid

Forest fires are common in Chile's parched, wooded areas during the hot summer months. However, serious drought has made the fires this year particularly difficult to contain. Chile's president, Michelle Bachelet, has called the fires "the greatest forest disaster" in the Chile's history. 

The country has turned to the international community, requesting aid to tackle the wildfires. Heraldo Munoz, Chile's foreign minister, said the United States, Canada and various other countries have offered help. Meanwhile, Bachelet tweeted on Thursday that the country had accepted additional super tanker planes and helicopters from Russia.

The Chilean-born wife of an heir to the US supermarket chain Wal-mart has also hired the world's largest Boeing 747-400 "Super Tanker" plane with a capacity of 72 tons of water to contribute to the firefighting effort. It is being deployed near the town of Hualane in the Maule region.

Karte Chile Waldbränder ENG

Interior Minister Mahmud Aleuy warned that more fires are to be expected in the coming days amid rising temperatures and increasingly strong winds.

Environmentalists have attributed this year's considerably hot and dry weather to climate change. 

dm/sms (AP, AFP, dpa)