11 dead, 500 homes destroyed in Chile forest fire

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press
Firefighters were having difficulty combating the blaze because of the topography of the city, which is surrounded by dozens of steep hills where most people live.

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SANTIAGO, Chile -- A fire raging in this colorful port city has killed at least 11 people and destroyed 500 homes, President Michelle Bachelet said Sunday. More than 10,000 people have been evacuated, including more than 200 female inmates at a prison.

The fire began Saturday afternoon in a forested area above ramshackle housing on one of the city's many hilltops, and spread quickly as high winds rained hot ash over wooden houses and narrow streets in the city of 250,000. Electricity failed as the fire spread, and towering, sparking flames turned the night sky orange over the darkened remains of entire neighborhoods.

"It's a tremendous tragedy, perhaps the worst fire" in the city's history, said President Michelle Bachelet. She announced that 11 people had been killed and warned that the toll of death and damage would rise.

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

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," Bachelet said.

Valparaiso, which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2003, is known for colorful neighborhoods hugging hills so steep that people have to use staircases rather than streets. About 75 miles (120 kilometers) northwest 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 center have been built without water supplies or access points would enable firefighters to intervene, so much of the fight was from the air. Chile mobilized 17 helicopters and planes to drop water on hotspots Sunday.

"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 center, 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.

As fires were contained in some areas, some people managed to return to discover that their homes had been destroyed.

"It's frightening, everything is burned," said Francisca Granados, who had spent the night with friends in the neighboring city of Vina del Mar.

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. More than 2,700 male inmates will remain at the prison for now, prison guard commander Tulio Arce said.


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