BARRIO – Dozens of wildfires in Chile have claimed at least 23 lives, forcing the government to extend an emergency order to another region as a scorching summer heatwave complicates efforts to control the blazes.
More than 1,100 people have sought refuge in shelters while at least 979 have been reported injured by the raging fires, according to an official briefing on Saturday.
The latest emergency order covers the southern region of Araucanía, next to the previously declared Biobío and Ñuble regions, located near the middle of the South American country’s long Pacific coastline.
“Weather conditions have made it very difficult to put out the fires that are spreading and the emergency is getting worse,” the interior minister, Carolina Tohá, said.
“We need to reverse that curve,” she added, noting that on Friday 76 more fires had ignited.
Another 16 fires sparked to life on Saturday as temperatures exceeded 40C.
The three sparsely populated regions covered by the emergency orders are home to many farms, where grapes, apples and berries are grown for export, plus extensive tracts of forest land.
The orders allow for the deployment of soldiers and additional resources to deal with the natural disaster.
Officials said Spain, the US, Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil and Venezuela have offered help, including planes and firefighters.
Approximately 40,000 hectares have been burned by the fires, according to official data released late on Friday.
National forestry agency Conaf reported on Saturday that 80 of 231 total wildfires are being actively battled, while 151 of them are under control.
Officials said that over 90% of the wildfires have been smothered before they spread beyond 5 hectares.
But for those unlucky enough to get caught up in one of the uncontrolled wildfires, immediate evacuation was the only option.
“I left with what I had on,” said Carolina Torres, who fled from an approaching fire near the city of Puren in Araucanía.
“I think everyone here did the same thing because the winds shifted and you just had to grab everything right away.”
On Friday, President Gabriel Boric cut short his summer vacation and traveled to Biobío and Ñuble, pledging to make sure the affected areas receive all necessary support.
Boric also pointed to “signs” that some fires may have been started intentionally, but did not provide any additional details.