The death toll in violent forest fires in Chile has risen to at least 99. “We know that this number will increase significantly,” said President Gabriel Boric on Sunday during a visit to the disaster area in the Valparaíso region on the Pacific coast. The South American country's forensic institute said 32 of the victims have already been identified. More than 300 people were still missing.
"This is the worst tragedy our country has experienced since the 2010 earthquake," said the head of state. At that time, more than 520 people were killed. President Boric announced two days of national mourning starting Monday in honor of those who died.
The forestry department registered 188 fires across the country on Sunday, covering a total area of almost 29,000 hectares. Thousands of houses were damaged or destroyed, more than 3,000 in the Valparaíso region alone, said Interior Minister Carolina Tohá. The region west of the capital Santiago, where, according to the government, around 1.8 million people live, is the hardest hit by the fires. A fire near the coastal towns of Valparaíso and Viña del Mar has spread to an area of around 11,000 hectares, it said.
State of emergency declared
On Friday, President Boric had already declared a state of emergency in the affected areas due to the disaster in order to be able to mobilize all the necessary resources. He has now instructed the Ministry of Defense to deploy more military units. A curfew was imposed for some communities to make fire-fighting and rescue work easier.
It is being investigated whether the fires may have been set intentionally, said President Boric. He announced an investigation, "although it is difficult to imagine who caused such tragedy and so much pain." According to the Interior Minister, the government had "serious information" about the fire near Valparaíso that it was started intentionally. Further south in the Maule region, a person was arrested for causing a fire while working with a welding machine.
In summer in the southern hemisphere, serious forest fires occur again and again in Chile. Last year, more than 425,000 hectares of land burned in the center and south of Chile - roughly eight times the area of Lake Constance. At least 26 people were killed.
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