Chile fire: Valparaiso declared catastrophe zone

Flames light up the skyline in Valparaiso, where Chilean authorities have issued a red alert. Picture: AFP/Getty
Flames light up the skyline in Valparaiso, where Chilean authorities have issued a red alert. Picture: AFP/Getty
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A raging fire leapt from hilltop to hilltop yesterday in a Chilean port city, killing at least 16 people and destroying more than 500 homes.

Ten thousand people were evacuated, including more than 200 female inmates at a prison.

The fire began in a forested area above ramshackle housing on one of Valparaiso’s many hilltops, and spread quickly as high winds rained hot ash over wooden houses and narrow streets.

Electricity failed as the fire grew, with towering, sparking flames turning the night sky orange over the darkened remains of entire neighbourhoods.

“It’s a tremendous tragedy. This could be the worst fire in the city’s history,” President Michelle Bachelet said as firefighters contained most of the blazes, mobilising 18 helicopters and planes to drop water on hotspots yesterday.

Ms Bachelet warned that the toll of death and damage would rise once authorities could enter the smouldering remains.

Military police general Julio Pineda said 16 were killed and more than 500 people injured. Patricio Bustos, who directs the national forensics service, said DNA tests would be needed to identify remains.

It was already the worst fire to hit the picturesque seaside city of 250,000 people since 1953, when 50 people were killed and every structure was destroyed on several of the city’s hills.

While the fires were mostly contained to several hilltops, Ms Bachelet declared the entire city a catastrophe zone, putting Chile’s military in charge of maintaining order.

“The people of Valparaiso have courage, have strength and they aren’t alone,” she said.

Valparaiso, which was declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 2003, is known for colourful neighbourhoods hugging hills so steep that people have to use staircases rather than streets. About 75 miles north- west of the capital, Santiago, it has a vibrant port and is home to Chile’s national legislature.

But many homes in poorer areas above the city centre have been built without water supplies or access points that would enable firefighters to intervene, so much of the fight was from the air.

“This is the worst catastrophe I’ve seen,” said Ricardo Bravo, the regional governor. “Now we have to make sure the fire doesn’t reach the city centre, which would make this emergency much more serious.”

While 1,250 firefighters, police and forest rangers battled the blaze, 2,000 Chilean sailors in combat gear patrolled streets to maintain order and prevent looting.

Shelters were overflowing, and hospitals treated hundreds of people for breathing problems provoked by the smoke.

Maria Elizabeth Diaz, eight months pregnant, said: “I didn’t want to move because I was afraid someone would rob me, but I had to flee when I saw the fire was coming down the hill.”

Thick clouds of smoke surrounded the city’s prison, where nine pregnant inmates were transferred to a detention facility in the nearby city of Quillota. Another 204 female inmates were being evacuated to a sports arena.