Firefighters on Sunday battled massive wildfires that broke out in central Chile two days earlier, as authorities extended curfews in towns hardest hit by the fires and said that at At least 64 people were killed.
While the number of deaths increased by 13 compared to the day before, President Gabriel Boric declared that the toll was likely to rise further.
“We know that this number is going to increase, it is going to increase significantly,” Boric said in a televised address to the nation.
The fires are burning with the greatest intensity around the town of Viña del Mar, where a famous botanical garden founded in 1931 was destroyed by flames on Sunday. At least 1,600 people were left homeless.
Several neighborhoods east of Viña del Mar were devoured by flames and smoke, trapping some people in their homes. Authorities said 200 people were missing in and around Viña del Mar. The town of 300,000 is a popular seaside resort and also hosts a famous music festival during the southern hemisphere summer.
Fires could be started intentionally, governor says
Rodrigo Mundaca, the governor of the Valparaiso region, said Sunday that he believed some of the fires may have been started intentionally, repeating a theory that was also raised Saturday by President Boric.
“These fires started at four points that ignited simultaneously,” Mundaca said. “As authorities, we will have to work rigorously to determine those responsible.”
The fires around Viña del Mar started in mountainous forest areas that are difficult to access. But they have settled into densely populated neighborhoods on the city’s outskirts despite efforts by Chilean authorities to slow the flames.
On Saturday, the president said unusually high temperatures, low humidity and strong winds made it difficult to control the wildfires, which have already ravaged 8,000 hectares of forests and urban areas.
Curfews to prevent looting
Authorities are asking residents in areas affected by the fires to evacuate their homes as quickly as possible, while people furthest from the fires should stay at home to facilitate the passage of fire trucks and ambulances.
Curfews were declared in Viña del Mar and the neighboring towns of Quilpué and Villa Alemana as part of an effort to prevent looting.
The fires broke out during a week of record temperatures in central Chile. Over the past two months, the El Niño weather phenomenon has brought droughts and high temperatures to western South America, also increasing the risk of wildfires.