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Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-04-15

A massive blaze in Valparaiso has killed at least 15 people and forced thousands to flee from their homes in the picturesque Chilean city. Valparaiso's historic quarter is a protected UNESCO world heritage site.

Firefighters backed by police and soldiers have spent a third day battling a massive blaze that has ravaged a huge swath of Chile's historic port of Valparaiso.

It could be yet another two days before they succeed in extinguishing the fire, whose cause is under investigation, officials said.

So far, the inferno has consumed 1,140 hectares and 2,500 homes, leaving 11,000 homeless, according to Interior Minister Rodrigo Penailillo.

Some who refused to leave died when the flames swept through their homes.

Hardest hit have been Valparaiso's poorer neighbourhoods, perched precariously on the coastal city's tinder-dry hillsides, where dwellings built mostly of wood with tin roofs quickly became engulfed.

The fire began on Saturday afternoon in a forested area above ramshackle housing on one of the city’s many hilltops, and spread quickly as high winds rained hot ash over wooden houses and narrow streets in the city of 250,000.

Electricity failed as the fire spread, and towering flames turned the night sky orange over the darkened remains of entire neighbourhoods.

President Michelle Bachelet declared a state of emergency, and sent soldiers to help with emergency operations.

Located about 135km to the west of the capital Santiago, Valparaiso is one of the country’s most important ports. Its historic quarter has been declared a protected UNESCO world heritage site.

“It’s a tremendous tragedy, perhaps the worst fire” in the city’s history, Bachelet said. She warned that the toll of death and damage would rise.

It was already the worst fire to hit the picturesque seaside city since 1953, when 50 people were killed and every structure was destroyed on several of the city’s hills.

Fighting the blaze from the air

Many homes in the poorer areas above the city centre have been built without water supplies or access points that enable firefighters to intervene on the ground, so much of the fight has been done from the air. Chile mobilized 17 helicopters and planes to drop water on hotspots Sunday.

While 1,250 firefighters, police and forest rangers battled the blaze, 2,000 Chilean sailors in combat gear patrolled streets to maintain order and prevent looting.

Shelters were overflowing, and hospitals treated hundreds of people for breathing problems provoked by the smoke.

Weather forecasts called for high temperatures and strong winds on Sunday afternoon, a combination that could exacerbate the disaster if the remaining flames were not put out in time.

“We fled from the La Cruz neighborhood, from an apartment I just got not too long ago. It’s all burned down, my sister’s house also burnt to the ground,” Valparaiso resident Rosa Guzman said as she stared helplessly up at the hills.





Date created : 2014-04-13


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