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At least 51 dead as wildfires surround Chile tourist city with toll to rise ‘much higher’

At least 51 dead as wildfires surround Chile tourist city with toll to rise ‘much higher’

Raging wildfires in central Chile have killed at least 51 people with the blaze reaching a popular tourist city as emergency services continue to battle the flames.

President Gabriel Boric in a televised address warned that the death toll could worsen as four large fires were still burning in the Valparaiso region — a densely populated part of the country that is popular with tourists and home to nearly one million people.

Thick smoke was seen billowing into the sky over many parts of Valparaiso, where thousands of people have been asked to evacuate their homes and authorities were using helicopters to douse the flames.

Forest fires in Chile's Vina del Mar region (EPA)
Forest fires in Chile's Vina del Mar region (EPA)

At least 1,100 homes have been destroyed so far in the fires, the authorities said on Saturday.

Areas around the coastal tourist city of Vina del Mar have been some of the hardest hit, where rescue teams were struggling to reach all the affected areas.

"If you are told to evacuate don't hesitate to do it," the president said, requesting Chilians to cooperate with the rescue workers.

"The fires are advancing fast and climatic conditions have made them difficult to control. There are high temperatures, strong winds and low humiditiy.

"The situation is really very difficult," he added.

A fire burns a building in an industrial area during the forest fires affecting Vina del Mar, Valparaiso Region (EPA)
A fire burns a building in an industrial area during the forest fires affecting Vina del Mar, Valparaiso Region (EPA)

About 92 forest fires were burning in central and southern Chile, according to interior minister Carolina Toha.

"The condition of Valparaiso is the most delicate," Ms Toha said, adding that Chile was facing its worst disaster since a 2010 earthquake that killed about 500.

Three shelters were set up in the region, while 19 helicopters and more than 450 firefighters were pressed into action to tackle the blaze.

The fire destroyed two bus terminals and prompted evacuation of four hospitals and three nursing homes for the elderly in Valparaiso.

Two fires near the town of Quilpue and Villa Alemana have spread across 19,770 acres since Friday. In Villa Independencia, a hillside neighborhood on the eastern edge of the town, several blocks of homes and businesses were destroyed, she said.

A fire burns a hillside during the forest fires affecting Vina del Mar, Valparaiso Region, Chile (EPA)
A fire burns a hillside during the forest fires affecting Vina del Mar, Valparaiso Region, Chile (EPA)

Burned cars with broken windows lined the streets, which were covered in ash.

"I've been here 32 years, and never imagined this would happen," said Rolando Fernindez, one of the residents who lost his home.

He saw the fire burning on a nearby hill on Friday afternoon and within 15 minutes the area was engulfed in flames and smoke, forcing everyone to run for their lives.

"I've worked my whole life, and now I'm left with nothing," he told the Associated Press.

The area with fires today is much smaller than last year, but the number of hectares affected is multiplying very rapidly, the interior minister said. Between Friday and Saturday, the area affected by the wildfires increased to 110,000 acres.

Last year, on the back of a record heat wave, some 27 people died and more than 990,000 acres were affected.

The El Nino weather pattern has caused droughts and hotter than usual temperatures along the west of South America this year, increasing the risk of forest fires.

Additional reporting by agencies