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A firefighter works at the Botanical Garden after a forest fire in Viña del Mar, Chile, on 4 February 2024. Chileans Sunday feared a rise in the death toll from wildfires blazing across the South American country that have already killed at least 100 people, leaving bodies in the street and homes gutted. (Photo by JAVIER TORRES/AFP via Getty Images)

Wildfires Sweep Across Central Chile

Intense wildfires spread across parts of central Chile this weekend, and 112 people have been declared dead so far, with more fatalities expected. As of early 5 February, there were still 40 fires active in the country.

On Sunday, 4 February, Chile’s forestry authority registered 159 fires across the nation. In many areas, the fires started in mountainous, forested areas that are difficult to reach, but the blazes moved down into densely populated areas. High temperatures, low humidity, and high wind speeds made firefighting difficult. In the hilly neighborhoods around resort town Viña del Mar, many older residents were unable to escape, according to The New York Times.

President Gabriel Boric described the fires as the worst disaster in Chile since a cataclysmic earthquake in 2010. “We’re standing before a tragedy of immense proportions,” he said.

Officials said that thousands of houses have been damaged or destroyed, including more than 3,000 in the coastal Valparaíso region, where many people were visiting during the summer holidays, DW reported. People in fire-affected areas have been asked to evacuate as quickly as possible, and those further from active fires were told to shelter in place to enable fire trucks and ambulances to travel with fewer obstacles. Curfews were declared in multiple cities to try and prevent looting. The government also banned the handling of fire and machines that produce heat in Valparaíso and nearby Marga Marga, hoping to avoid any more sparks.

A health alert was put in place in Valparaíso, which calls for the suspension of elective surgeries and authorized the set up of temporary field hospitals, the BBC reported. The health ministry is also allowing healthcare organizations to hire medical students near the end of their studies to help ease pressures on the health service.

Approximately 1,400 firefighters were deployed on 4 February, along with military personnel who will help provide emergency services.

The dry season in Chile has lasted longer than normal, and the fires are being fueled by a summer heatwave and drought caused by the El Niño weather phenomenon, CBS News reported.

Chilean Interior Minister Carolina Toha said that there was evidence the fire near Valparaíso was started deliberately, with multiple simultaneous ignition points. Investigations into the source of the blaze are underway.

Photos of long lines of scorched cars were posted to social media over the weekend, with residents criticizing flawed evacuation orders, including alerts that gave evacuation instructions but did not order residents to leave, the Times explained. For some residents, the instructions came too late, when the fires were already pressing in around their homes, blocking their escape.

For more about fire prevention, response, and recovery, read the June 2023 Security Technology issue here. 

To see how the U.S. Forest Service is using uncrewed aerial devices (aka drones) to combat forest fires, read this in-depth feature from 2023