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Fires kill at least 51 in Chile, toll likely to rise

Staff WritersReuters
At least 46 people have died in several forest fires that affected an urban area of Chile. (AP PHOTO)
Camera IconAt least 46 people have died in several forest fires that affected an urban area of Chile. (AP PHOTO) Credit: AP

Forest fires raging in central Chile have killed at least 51 people and the death toll is likely to keep climbing, authorities say, as emergency services battled to snuff out flames threatening urban areas.

Black smoke billowed into the sky over many parts of the Valparaiso region, home to nearly one million people in central Chile, while firefighters using helicopters and trucks struggled to quell the fires.

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

The death toll rose when five bodies were found on public roads, and information indicates "we are going to reach much higher figures" in coming hours, said Interior Minister Carolina Toha.

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

President Gabriel Boric told the nation in a televised address: "The situation is really very difficult."

Toha said 92 forest fires were burning in the centre and south of the country, where temperatures have been unusually high this week.

She said two fires near the towns of Quilpue and Villa Alemana had burned through at least 8000 hectares since Friday.

Wildfires are not uncommon in Chile over summer months. Last year, on the back of a record heat wave, some 27 people died and more than 400,000 hectares were affected.

"The area with fires today is much smaller than last year, (but) at this time the number of hectares affected is multiplying very rapidly," Toha said.

Between Friday and Saturday the area affected by the wildfires increased to 43,000 hectares from 30,000.

Toha said the authorities' greatest concern was that some of the active fires were developing very close to urban areas "with the very high potential to affect people, homes and facilities."

In areas further away from the fires, residents were told to stay at home so fire engines, ambulances and other emergency vehicles can get about on the roads with greater ease.

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