Days after devastating wildfires swept through Chile’s Pacific coast, leveling entire neighborhoods and trapping people fleeing in cars, authorities said Sunday that at least 99 people had died with hundreds still missing and warned that the death toll could increase drastically.
“That number is going to increase, we know it is going to increase significantly,” President Gabriel Boric said Sunday, calling the fires in the Valparaíso region the worst disaster in the country since a catastrophic earthquake in 2010 left more than 400 dead. dead. 1.5 million dead and displaced.
“We are facing a tragedy of immense proportions,” said the president, who visited the fire area and announced that the nation would observe two days of mourning. He said the top priority was to recover the bodies of the victims.
Thousands of homes were destroyed by the flames, which starting Friday devastated the mountainous settlements around the tourist city of Viña del Mar, driven by strong winds. A regional state of emergency was declared and a nighttime curfew was imposed.
The fires broke out when many were on summer vacation in Viña del Mar, a city of about 330,000 people, and devastated the smaller neighboring towns of Quilpué, Limache and Villa Alemana. In some hillside areas, many older residents were unable to escape.
Omar Castro Vázquez, whose house was destroyed in the El Olivar settlement, said an elderly neighbor had died in the fire.
“It looked more like a nuclear bomb than a fire,” said Castro Vázquez, 72. “Nothing remains”.
The destruction in the Valparaíso region came as dozens of fires burned in central and southern Chile, amid what officials have said are higher than normal temperatures for this time of year.
Several other South American countries have also struggled to contain wildfires. Colombia has seen dozens of fires emerge in recent weeks, including around the capital Bogotá, as the country has experienced a period of dry weather. Firefighters have also been fighting fires in Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina.
The cyclical climate phenomenon known as El Niño has exacerbated droughts and high temperatures in parts of the continent, creating conditions that experts say are ripe for wildfires.
The Valparaiso fires accelerated toward the coast as winds increased Friday.
Several fires, which also threatened the port city of Valparaíso, burned overnight Friday. Authorities did not begin to understand the extent of the damage until Saturday.
Chile’s Interior Minister Carolina Tohá said Sunday that authorities hoped that improving conditions — lower temperatures, higher humidity and less wind — would help firefighters quell hot spots and rescue workers reach to charred areas to remove the bodies.
At dawn on Sunday, bands of smoke clung to the slopes of Viña del Mar. Along a highway toward the coast, dirt banks and bridges burned and tree stumps burned on the slopes. The incinerated hulls of cars littered the roads.
Early signs point to flawed evacuation orders, which some residents say may have contributed to the casualty count.
Photographs posted on the social media platform Hawaii.
Chile’s national disaster response service, Senapred, said alerts were activated starting Friday and gave people evacuation instructions but did not order them to leave.
Regina Figueroa, 53, a resident of the Villa Independencia settlement on the outskirts of Viña del Mar, said she received a telephone alert with evacuation instructions on Friday as the fire was already approaching her home.
“I got the alert,” he said, “and I ran out into the street. When I got to the road, the flames were already on the corner.”
Mrs. Figueroa picked up her five-year-old grandson, she said. The flames were so close that she could feel the heat as she ran. She stopped and dipped the boy, who was crying, in a pool to cool him down, she said, and then continued running upstairs to escape.
“The sky was black,” he said. “You couldn’t see anything. “Everyone was shouting, shouting instructions, moaning into the wind.”
She reached the top of the stairs and stopped to catch her breath, sobbing.
“I couldn’t believe we were alive. But we were the lucky ones,” she said. “I lost my mother-in-law, my sister-in-law. “They died calcified in the street because they could not escape the flames.”
Several blocks of Villa Independencia were decimated by fire.
In El Olivar, Castro Vázquez said residents had fled to a local plaza when the cell phone alert came.
A column of black smoke rose over a hill from a botanical garden on the other side of the hill, he said, and within minutes his community was engulfed in tall orange flames.
Another resident, Andrés Calderón, 40, said that several people in the neighborhood had not wanted to leave their homes for fear of being robbed by thieves.
When he received the alert, Calderon said he got into his car and drove through smoke so thick he had to turn on his headlights.
“It was like entering hell,” Calderón said. “I couldn’t see, the wind made the car almost go off the road. “I kept driving.”
On Sunday, the area, which was a mix of decades-old public housing and makeshift homes, was reduced to rubble. The sides of the road were covered in sheets of corrugated metal and piles of debris, all blackened and smelling of smoke.
Castro Vázquez, a retired dock worker, said he had lost all his clothes, possessions, documents and a portion of his pension, which he had withdrawn and kept in cash.
Residents helped each other remove debris and burned appliances from the shells of homes.
“I haven’t cried, I haven’t accepted it. I’m just focused on cleaning my house and my neighbors’,” Castro Vázquez said. “They were broken.”
In the hills around Viña del Mar, police and forensic doctors were beginning to arrive Sunday afternoon. Police officers searched through the rubble and asked locals if they had seen bodies.
Some survivors said they saw people swallowed by flames two stories high. Others described seeing bodies lying on the stairs.
Many residents of the settlements said they had been stranded without help or even information because their mobile phones had run out of battery and the power had gone out. They said they had largely been left alone to respond to the disaster. Many said shelters set up for evacuees were too far away to be useful.
In the Las Praderas neighborhood, some survivors huddled in the shade while others raked the twisted remains of their homes. A taxi handed out bottled water and empanadas while a first-year medical student treated minor injuries.
The mayor of Viña del Mar, Macarena Ripamonti, said in a press conference on Sunday morning that as of Saturday night, 372 people were missing in the municipality. She said officials would ensure the bodies of those who died in the fires were removed as quickly as possible.
“They are our neighbors, they are our family, they are our friends, they are people from Viña del Mar. That moves the population,” he said. “People are experiencing the worst situation.”
Natalia Alcoba contributed reports from Buenos Aires.