Chile is reeling from a devastating wave of wildfires that has tragically claimed the lives of at least 122 individuals, with authorities cautioning that the toll is likely to rise. The Legal Medical Services of Valparaiso shared the grim update on Monday, revealing that 32 bodies have been identified, 40 autopsies conducted, and 10 bodies prepared for handover to grieving families.
The severity of the situation prompted President Gabriel Boric to declare a state of emergency, particularly affecting coastal cities like Viña del Mar and Valparaiso, where thick blankets of smoke have engulfed the regions. The unfolding emergency has forced residents in central areas to evacuate their homes.
Chile is currently grappling with 161 active fires, presenting a formidable challenge for firefighters. While 102 fires have been brought under control, 40 others still rage on, and 19 are under observation, according to Álvaro Hormazábal, the Director of the Chilean National Disaster Prevention and Response Service (SENAPRED).
With the nation battling a summer heatwave and neighboring Colombia also grappling with destructive wildfires, South America faces a heightened risk exacerbated by the ongoing El Niño phenomenon, further escalating temperatures.
The UN Environment Programme’s 2022 report warned of the increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires globally due to the human-induced climate crisis. The report projected a rise of up to 14% in extreme wildfire events by 2030 and a staggering 30% by 2050.
President Boric expressed deep concern during a press conference, acknowledging fears that the death toll could witness a significant increase. In response, he declared Monday and Tuesday as days of national mourning in honor of the fire victims.
The magnitude of the crisis prompted the deployment of additional military units to affected areas, with the defense ministry ensuring all necessary resources are available. Rodrigo Mundaca, the governor of Valparaiso, revealed that curfews are in effect in towns like Viña del Mar, Quilpué, Villa Alemana, and Limache to facilitate firefighting efforts.
In Valparaiso, a popular tourist destination known for its colorful houses and historic old town, local officials reported 372 residents as missing. The fires have caused extensive damage, with nearly 1,400 houses in the municipality of Quilpué alone being affected, according to Valeria Melipillán, the mayor of Quilpué city.
Chile’s Finance Minister Mario Marcel estimated preliminary damages in the Valparaíso region to reach “hundreds of millions of dollars.” Emergency crews continue to prioritize efforts in Valparaiso due to its proximity to urban areas.
As the crisis unfolds, the global community rallies behind Chile, offering support and assistance. Pope Francis, hailing from nearby Argentina, called for prayers for the victims of the devastating fires in central Chile.
As authorities grapple with the ongoing emergency, at least one person has been detained in connection to the wildfires. The individual, reportedly engaged in welding work at his home in the city of Talca, accidentally triggered a fire that rapidly spread to nearby grasslands. The suspect is set to be arraigned in Talca.
As the nation confronts this unprecedented crisis, emergency crews, military units, and communities are uniting to combat the relentless wildfires, illustrating the resilience and solidarity needed to face such environmental challenges. The situation remains dynamic, with responders working tirelessly to contain the fires and ensure the safety of affected residents.