At least 99 dead, more than 3,000 houses burned and suspicions of intentionality: the brutal fire ravaging Chile

The serious forest fires ravaging the south-central area of ​​Chile, but especially the Valparaíso region, have caused at least 99 deaths, as reported this Sunday by the Legal Medical Service (SML), the state entity in charge identification of the deceased. A few hours earlier, President Gabriel Boric had already announced that the 64 victims he had reported during a press conference constituted a figure that “will increase”: “We know that it will increase significantly.” The president declared a two-day national mourning and assured that it was the greatest tragedy that Chile had experienced since the great earthquake of February 27, 2010, which left hundreds of victims due to the earthquake and tsunami. “I say this so we can measure the pain and the magnitude of what we are experiencing,” Boric said of the deadliest wildfire since records have existed.

Of the 99 people who died, 32 have been identified, while 25 autopsies have been carried out, the Legal Medical Service said.

This Sunday, the president visited Viña del Mar and Quilpué, two of the most affected cities in the region, located about 120 kilometers from Santiago, the capital of Chile. “Today’s priority, we have said it, but we reiterate it, is to save lives and to control as quickly as possible the active epidemics against which we are fighting,” declared the president, accompanied by a group of mayors of the area and regional municipalities. governor, Rodrigo Mundaca. And he indicated that the team of the Legal Medical Service has been reinforced, because “one of the most urgent emergencies is to recover the bodies”. “This is a priority and is being addressed with a sense of urgency. We know the anguish, the terrible and heartbreaking pain experienced by family members and all those who, in the process of removing debris, must encounter the body of a person.

Boric’s sentence clearly describes the tragedy. Wildfires reached urban areas in the Valparaíso region on Friday evening, and as of Saturday morning, authorities were still unable to enter some areas because the fires were not under control. Witnesses say the fire spread within minutes. “Everything exploded like a bomb,” a woman from the Achupallas region of Viña del Mar told public television, leaving a large number of dead. People died while fleeing and their own neighbors had to find the bodies. The images are devastating, as entire cities – formal and informal – are now in ashes.

President Boric indicated that the curfew will be maintained in four municipalities in the region: Viña del Mar, Quilpué, Limache and Villa Alemana. Facilitate the work of rescue teams and evacuations, but also prevent looting. Amid this tragedy, thefts occurred in homes that did not lose everything, authorities reported.

While the flames are brought under control, shelters and centers have been opened where items are being collected for affected families. In addition, Boric ordered that the presidential palace of Cerro Castillo, in Viña del Mar, be used “entirely as a space to carry out activities for children and adolescents victims of the tragedy”, and that it will have monitors and teachers to take care of it. two.

He said the fires destroyed more than 3,000 homes. In Quilpué alone, the fire destroyed 1,300 houses, a figure that needs to be updated, he said. “In Viña del Mar, it’s much more,” he added.

The Minister of the Interior, Carolina Tohá, assured this Sunday that active fires are still active in the Valparaíso region and that, therefore, the risk has not been overcome. “But not like Saturday,” he said, referring to the best conditions of temperature, wind and humidity to fight the fire in this region, where at least 11,000 hectares have burned.

Faced with this tragedy, the governments of Peru, Uruguay, Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Mexico expressed their solidarity with Chile and offered their assistance . In addition, this Sunday, the Ukrainian President, Volodimír Zelenski, sent via his X account (formerly Twitter) vscondolences to Boric and “has all Chileans facing the terrible forest fires. Pope Francis also, during the Angelus ceremony at the Vatican, asked people to pray “for the dead and injured in the devastating fires in Chile.”

Intentionality is studied

The fires intensified Friday evening. And in one area of ​​the Valparaíso region, four fires broke out simultaneously, increasing the possibility of intentionality. Minister Tohá explained that they had proven that at least in Las Tablas, in Viña del Mar, there had been intentional outbreaks.

The president also addressed this issue and said that, along with relief and emergency actions, he had ordered the collection of “all information” to determine the origin of the fires. “It is hard to imagine that there could be such miserable and heartless people capable of causing so much death and suffering. » And he added: “But if these people exist, we will look for them, we will find them and they will have to face not only the rejection of the entire society, but also the full weight of the law.”

Governor Mundaca said that although the characteristics of those responsible for the fire are not known, it is evident that there was intent. “We don’t know if these are organized groups or arsonists, that will have to be determined by the courts.” But he promised: “All authorities will exercise the utmost rigor of the law to find those responsible, because the fires have turned into homicides.”

The areas affected by forest fires have devastated urban areas, where there are populations settled in the 1960s. Among them, although there is no complete land register yet, there are 16 damaged villages (30% correspond to houses built by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Planning). Planning Service, Serviu, and 70% towards irregular camps). The Undersecretary of the Interior, Manuel Monsalve, indicated that, according to preliminary figures, between 3,000 and 6,000 homes would be affected by the fire.

A woman walks between destroyed houses in Viña del Mar.Lucas Aguayo (Getty Images)

“People have lost everything”

The mayor of Viña del Mar, Macarena Ripamonti, announced on Sunday morning that 372 people are still missing in her municipality, while 83 people who were in this situation have been found. The local authority figure has not yet been published by the Disaster Risk Management Committee (Cogrid).

Ripamonti was consulted about the removal of the victims’ bodies, as neighbors reported that there were still remains in the streets. “That’s our first concern. We reported it immediately on Cogrid. They are our neighbors, our parents, our friends. “These are people from Viña del Mar and that gets the population moving.”

The atmosphere is naturally tense in burned areas. This Sunday there was a citizen’s arrest – when people act without the intermediary of the police – after the neighbors thought that a man was carrying an accelerating liquid, when in fact it was water in a bottle. “People lost everything and they don’t want it to burn again,” the mayor said.

Manuel Monsalve, Undersecretary of the Interior.GOVERNMENT OF CHILE

The flames have not given up

The Valparaíso region has remained in a state of emergency since Friday, decreed by the government of the provinces of Valparaíso and Marga Marga. The flames have not gone out. During the course of Saturday afternoon, new outbreaks appeared and the flames became uncontrollable. Firefighters at one point warned that they were unable to fight the fire in different sectors of the region where the fire was threatening human lives, entire villages, houses and factories.

The high temperatures, added to the strong winds, between 30 and up to 60 kilometers per hour, added to the lack of humidity, made it difficult to control the flames which were advancing quickly, burning everything in their path. However, this Sunday, the weather conditions improved.

Reinforcements from several fire companies from other parts of the country arrived in Valparaíso to help contain the flames.

The situation remains critical. The flames destroyed telephone antennas, which prevented communication between people. The government therefore activated a roaming emergency.

Houses burned in Viña del Mar, February 3, 2024.RODRIGO GARRIDO (Reuters)

The National Disaster Prevention and Response Service, Senapred, has issued evacuation alerts in different areas of the region where the population risks being affected by the fire. The alarms reached people’s cell phones in more than 30 places where evacuations were ordered.

In addition to the members of the brigade and the firefighters, Senapred manages 21 aircraft, three from the Armed Forces and 68 from the National Forestry Company (CONAF). And 52 evacuations were carried out with messaging.

Residents are evacuated with the help of military personnel after a fire breaks out in Valparaíso.Lucas Aguayo (Getty Images)

Stories of human tragedies multiply as the hours pass. Hundreds of families, with children and the elderly, find themselves homeless. In areas where it is already possible to enter, people are trying to clean up the places where their houses were built. Distressing images are shared on social media, such as that of a bus driver –microphones, they are called in Chile, tried to calm passengers as they traveled almost through the flames Friday evening. In the Botanical Garden of Viña del Mar, where more than 90% of the installations were destroyed by fire, the death of a worker was reported, who died along with three of her relatives – her two grandchildren and her very elderly mother. , while they were at home inside this compound. “The whole of Chile mourns Valparaíso,” said President Boric.

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