Chile Wildfires Destroy Town as Record Heatwave Stokes Blaze

  • Up to 1,000 homes destroyed overnight, with seven now dead
  • Over 100 fires remain active, according to the forestry agency

Wildfires raging across central Chile burned the rural town of Santa Olga last night as temperatures hit record highs and authorities struggled to cope in a country accustomed to natural disasters.

The fires destroyed as many as 1,000 homes late yesterday in Santa Olga, 260 kilometers to the south of Santiago, according to Carlos Valenzuela, the mayor of the neighboring city of Constitucion. The blazes have now cost the lives of seven firefighters, police and local citizens.

A forest fire in Vichuquen, 283 km south of Santiago, on Jan. 24, 2017.

Photographer: Martin Bernetti/AFP via Getty Images

“Thousands of people have lost their homes,” Valenzuela told Radio Cooperativa. “There are areas that have been completely abandoned and handed over to the fire. Unfortunately, they are being razed to the ground.”

Since coming to power in March 2014, President Michelle Bachelet has had to deal with a series of natural disasters, including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods and fires. The latest disaster has already cost the agricultural sector alone $170 million, according to estimates by Colliers International. Finance Minister Rodrigo Valdes told reporters Monday that the government could deal with the current fires without extra borrowing. Since then though, the devastation has worsened.

About 260,000 hectares have been consumed by more than 100 separate fires, many of them in the wine valley of Colchagua and the rich forestry lands further south, according to the Forestry Agency, Conaf. Bachelet has called the fires the worst forestry disaster in the country’s history.

Record Heatwave

Stoking the flames has been a heatwave across central Chile, with temperatures regularly peaking above 35 degrees Celsius. Yesterday, the temperature peaked at 37.4C in Santiago, a record for the city that came just five weeks after the previous record was set, according to the country’s meteorological unit. The city has often been clouded in smoke from the forest fires.

A firefighter helicopter helps to put out a forest fire in Pumanque, 140 km south of Santiago.

Photographer: Martin Bernetti/AFP via Getty Images

Lucy Ana Aviles, the Chilean wife of Wal-Mart heir Benjamin Walter, has spent $2 million to dispatch a 747 SuperTanker from the U.S. to help combat the fires. The plane started operating yesterday. A state of catastrophe continues in areas to the south of Santiago, allowing the government to call in the army for help.

Natural disasters have become all too familiar in Chile in the past few years. In early January, parts of the coastal city of Valparaiso, a world heritage site, were destroyed by fire, just two years after others sections of the same city were burnt down. In September 2015, an earthquake measuring 8.3 on the Richter scale hit the town of Illapel, while another measuring 8.2 damaged the town of Iquique in April 2014. In March 2015, floods killed at least 28 people when torrential rain hit the northern desert, while a month later the Calbuco volcano exploded in southern Chile.

Firefights are now struggling to cope with the latest disaster.

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