Responders battle killer Chilean blaze


Valparaiso, Chile - Emergency responders struggled on Monday with outbreaks from a deadly blaze that tore through parts of an historic Chilean port city, as authorities hoped to have control of the flames in two to three days.

The Valparaiso fire, still burning amid strong winds, has killed 12 people and is being battled with the help of 11 helicopters, six planes and 2 000 police and military troops.

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An out of control forest fire destroys homes in the city of Valparaiso, Chile. Photo: Luis Hidalgo/AP

Authorities say they aim to have control of the fire in the next 48 to 72 hours and then begin damage assessment and reconstruction.

The blaze, which started in woodland Saturday, destroyed 2 000 homes as flames advanced on the city of 270 000, famed for its UNESCO-listed centre with cobblestone streets and brightly painted wooden homes.

It also affected 8 000 properties, razed 850 hectares and forced 10 000 people to evacuate, according to latest figures.

Around 1 200 people woke up Monday having slept for a second night in one of eight shelters

The hillside neighbourhoods of Jimenez, Mariposas, Santa Elena Rocuant and especially Ramaditas, where there is ample vegetation and buildings are made of light, flammable material, were hard hit by wind-whipped flames.

The fire affected poorer neighbourhoods in particular, where tin and wood homes often built without permits are perched on hillside slopes.

The historic port of Valparaiso, however, remained unscathed.

Residents who had been evacuated returned to their neighbourhoods to discover their homes reduced to smouldering ruins.

Those caught in the path of the blaze after it erupted Saturday afternoon reported a fast-moving inferno that roared towards town, fanned by winds and searing temperatures.

But some residents refused to leave their homes overnight for fear of losing all of their possessions to flames or looters, even as police and emergency crews guarded the streets.

“I will not let go of what little I have. This represents 15 years of effort, and until I can no longer see my house, I will not leave it. My wife and my four children are in the shelter,” said Arturo Gomez, a resident of Mariposas.

Health Minister Helia Molina said that in addition to reconstruction, psychological support must be offered to those affected.

“We are working with psychosocial teams to take charge alleviating and mitigating what it means for a family to lose everything it had, because in this case people lost everything.”

President Michelle Bachelet has declared the area a disaster zone, allowing the armed forces to assist in relief efforts and take control of security.

The fire poses a new challenge for Bachelet, who one month after taking office on a mission to narrow the gap between rich and poor, must rearrange her priorities.

The fire caused the second mass evacuation in Valparaiso in as many weeks after the city was at the centre of a tsunami alert following a magnitude 8.2 earthquake on April 1.

Bachelet has announced the suspension of a visit to Argentina scheduled for Tuesday, in what was to be her first trip abroad after assuming office for a second term on March 11.

Valparaiso is one of Chile's most important ports. Its golden era was from the mid-19th century to the early 20th as a stopover point for ships steaming down South America and to round its southern tip into the Atlantic Ocean.

Fires occur frequently in central Chile, where summer sends temperatures soaring. It is currently autumn in the Southern Hemisphere.

In February 2013, some 105 homes were destroyed in Valparaiso, affecting 1 200 people, after a 27-year-old man started a blaze.


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