VIÑA DEL MAR, Chile (AP) — At least 46 people have died in intense wildfires burning around a densely populated region of central Chile, Chile's president said Saturday evening, and at least 1,100 homes have been destroyed, officials said.
In a nationally televised address, President Gabriel Boric warned that the death toll could worsen as four large fires burned in the Valparaiso region, where firefighters struggled to reach the most threatened neighborhoods.
Boric urged Chileans to cooperate with rescue workers.
“If you're asked to leave, don't hesitate to do so,” he said. “The fires are progressing rapidly and the weather conditions are making them difficult to contain. There are high temperatures, strong winds and low humidity.
Interior Minister Carolina Doha said earlier Saturday that 92 forest fires were burning in the country's center and south, where temperatures have been unusually high this week.
The fire was the deadliest in Valparaiso, where authorities urged thousands of people to evacuate their homes.
Meanwhile, residents in areas far from the fire were advised to stay indoors so that fire engines, ambulances and other emergency vehicles could more easily navigate the roads.
Two fires near the towns of Quilpué and Villa Alemana have burned at least 8,000 hectares (19,770 acres) since Friday, Doha said. A fire has threatened the coastal resort town of Viña del Mar, where some neighborhoods have already been hit hard.
In Villa Independencia, a hillside on the eastern edge of the city, many homes and businesses were destroyed. Burnt cars with broken windows lined the streets and were covered in ash.
“I've been here 32 years and never thought this would happen,” said Rolando Fernandez, one of the residents who lost his home.
He said he first saw the fire burning on a nearby hill on Friday afternoon and within 15 minutes the area was engulfed in flames and smoke, forcing everyone to run for their lives.
“I've worked all my life and now I'm left with nothing,” Fernandez said.
Three shelters were set up in the Valparaiso area, and 19 helicopters and more than 450 firefighters were brought to the area to help fight the blaze, Doha said.
Fires were burning in hard-to-reach mountains, such as precariously built neighborhoods on the edge of Viña del Mar.
Officials said the fire resulted in a power outage, and four hospitals and three nursing homes in the Valparaiso area had to be evacuated, Doha said. The Home Minister said that the fire also destroyed two bus terminals.
The El Niño weather pattern has caused drought and warmer-than-usual temperatures in western South America this year, increasing the risk of wildfires. In January, fires destroyed more than 17,000 hectares (42,000 acres) of forest in Colombia following weeks of dry weather.
Associated Press writer Manuel Ruda in Bogota, Colombia contributed to this report.
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