Helicopters dumped tonnes of water on wildfires raging across central Chile, as emergency crews said they were still finding bodies three days after the blazes took hold.
According to Marisol Prado, director of Chile’s forensic medical service, the confirmed death toll from Chile’s recent catastrophic event has risen to 123. The number is predicted to rise as efforts to remove debris continue by residents, firefighters, and military personnel.
On Friday, forest fires gained strength and extended into residential neighborhoods in the coastal cities of Valparaíso and Viña Del Mar. The fires emitted sparks and fireballs that quickly destroyed houses.
Jacqueline Atenas, 63, described the scene as a battlefield, comparable to the aftermath of an explosion. She evacuated her residence in Villa Independencia on Friday and revisited the ruins on Monday, carrying a small pink backpack which was the only item she managed to rescue.
“It felt as though someone was pouring gasoline onto the houses. I am confused about what occurred… There was strong gusts of wind and large balls of fire flying around.”
Luis Parra, who lives on the same street, shared that he and his family had a narrow escape. When he noticed sparks approaching his home, the electricity had already shut off and they were unable to leave in their car due to a closed gate.
Parra expressed disbelief over the tragic incident in which his sister and blind father lost their lives, while he and a friend were able to escape in a car. The bodies of the deceased were discovered just one block away from their residence.
Other residents of Villa Independencia, a working-class neighborhood of Viña del Mar, described high winds and a fast-moving inferno.
Ingrid Crespo, aged 59, reported that she initially spotted the fire at a significant distance on Friday and observed as it spread rapidly from one hill to another.
Crespo recounted, “The sparks were jumping and the wind was howling as if a hurricane was passing through.” Upon noticing sparks entering her home, she attempted to douse her roof with water, but it was already too late to prevent the destruction of her house.
She fled wearing sandals and only the clothes she had on. Several of her fellow residents lost their lives. Her cat and dog perished in the blaze.
Crespo shared that when her son arrived on Sunday, he witnessed multiple fatalities. She expressed the overwhelming number of deceased individuals.
On Monday, Chile initiated a formal mourning period lasting two days. According to officials, hundreds of individuals are still unaccounted for and approximately 14,000 residences have been impacted.
Aerial video captured by drones displayed entire sections of Viña del Mar damaged by fire, as locals searched through the remains of destroyed homes with collapsed roofs made of corrugated iron. Burnt cars were scattered along the roads.
Manuel Monsalve, the deputy interior minister, announced on Sunday evening that there are currently 165 active fires, an increase from the 154 reported on Saturday. In order to assist with containment efforts, a curfew has been put in place in the most heavily affected areas and the military has been called in to support the firefighters.
Monsalve stated that a decrease in temperature and an increase in cloud cover may aid authorities in extinguishing the fires within the next few days.
According to Monsalve’s statement at a press conference, we can expect consistently high temperatures, but not to the point of extreme temperatures.
The investigative unit of Chile’s police force (PDI) has announced its inquiry into potential instances of deliberate fire starting.
Experts predict that Chile, Argentina, and other regions in the southern cone of South America will experience more frequent and intense heat waves during the summer months due to the effects of climate change.
The occurrence of El Niño, which causes the Pacific Ocean to warm up, has worsened the already severe weather conditions in Chile.
Jesica Barrios, who lost her home in Viña del Mar, told Reuters over the weekend that the fire had arrived “from one moment to the next”.
She described how the botanical park was quickly engulfed in flames, and within just 10 minutes, the fire had reached their location. The air was thick with smoke, the sky turned an ominous black, and everything was shrouded in darkness. The force of the wind was akin to a hurricane, making her feel as though she was in the depths of hell.