Devastating wildfires tearing through swaths of Chile have killed more than 120 people, authorities said Monday, as they warned that the death toll was set to rise.
At least 122 people have died so far, the Legal Medical Services of the city of Valparaiso said Monday. Officials also said that 32 bodies have been identified, 40 autopsies have been conducted, and 10 bodies are ready to be delivered to relatives.
There are currently 161 active fires burning across the country, the Chilean National Disaster Prevention and Response Service (SENAPRED) said.
President Gabriel Boric declared a state of emergency as coastal cities like Viña del Mar and Valparaiso choked in smoke. Residents living in central regions were also forced to evacuate their homes. Speaking at a press conference held after visiting affected areas on Sunday, Boric raised fears that the death toll would “increase significantly.”
In a televised statement on Saturday, Boric said that the defense ministry would deploy more military units to affected areas, with all necessary resources made available.
He declared Monday and Tuesday as days of national mourning for fire victims.
The human-caused climate crisis is making heat waves and droughts, which fuel wildfires, more frequent and intense. The world is also currently experiencing the El Niño phenomenon, boosting temperatures even further.
Wildfires have intensified around the globe, providing a stark reminder of how the climate crisis is upending lives and inflicting billions of dollars a year in damage. And it will only get worse, according to experts. “Uncontrollable and devastating wildfires are becoming an expected part of the seasonal calendars in many parts of the world,” the UN Environment Programme said in a report published in 2022.
The number of extreme wildfire events will increase up to 14% by 2030, according to the UN report. By 2050, the increase will climb to 30%.
In Chile, the fires come as the country battles a summer heatwave. The capital Santiago has been sweltering through consecutive days of hot and dry temperatures climbing above 33 degrees Celsius (91.4°F).
Neighboring Colombia battled recent wildfires, declaring a disaster and also calling for international help to fight the flames.
Emergency crews on the ground in Chile are prioritizing the fires in the port city of Valparaíso because of its proximity to urban areas. Local officials said 372 residents were reported missing.
Located about 70 miles (113 kilometers) northwest of the capital Santiago on Chile’s coast, Valparaiso is a popular tourist destination known for its colorful houses, idyllic hills and its historic old town.
Chile’s Finance Minister Mario Marcel told reporters on Sunday that preliminary estimates for damages in the Valaparaíso region was expected to reach “hundreds of millions of dollars.”
While evacuation efforts had been efficient, some living in affected areas did not want to vacate their homes, local search and rescue officials said.
Rodrigo Mundaca, the governor of Valparaiso, said curfews were in place in the towns of Viña del Mar, Quilpué, Villa Alemana and Limache to allow authorities to focus on battling the blazes.
Pope Francis, who hails from nearby Argentina, called upon people to “pray for the deceased and injured victims of the devastating fires that have affected central Chile.”
According to police, the man was at his home in the city of Talca in central Chile doing welding work when a fire accidentally started and spread to nearby grasslands.
The suspect will be arraigned on Sunday in Talca, according to the Maule Prosecutor’s Office.
Desperate search for survivors
“I think she could be disoriented,” Ariel Orellana said. “I believe with all my faith and with all my heart that she is going to appear, eventually, to put an end to this nightmare.”
Orellana said his sister, Anastasia, was last seen when fleeing the wildfire in the Pompeya community in Viña del Mar, located in central Chile.
The girl had been living with her mother and her mother’s partner, who also died in the fires, according to Orellana.
On Saturday, after not being able to communicate with his mother, Orellana rushed to Pompeya to search for the couple and discovered their bodies near their vehicle.
“They did not have time to escape,” Orellana said. “They had a van, they tried to flee on it and the van was engulfed by the fire.”
Orellana said he is continuing to search nearby areas ravaged by the fires and is using social media to spread the word about his sister disappearance.
“I only found two bodies, not three. So I’m still looking for my sister,” he said.