VALPARAISO, Chile (AP) — Helicopters and airplanes dumped water on wildfires and the smoldering wreckage of hilltop neighborhoods Monday as sailors in riot gear prepared to evacuate 700 more families who would be endangered if the winds turn again.
Already 8,000 people were homeless as wildfires sent burning embers flying from hilltop to hilltop, destroying 2,000 homes in this picturesque coastal city. Smoke rose from smoldering ruins all over the city, a scene many compared to Dante’s inferno.
After days without sleep, some people made their way home, only to discover complete ruins. The fires, so hot that they created their own fierce winds, consumed entire neighborhoods in some places. In others, a few houses emerged unscathed, but they too remained in danger with so many embers still glowing in the shifting winds.
Chile’s forestry agency predicted Monday that the fires won’t be fully extinguished for another 20 days.
Aid was flowing from all over Chile to Valparaiso, where evacuees crowded into eight shelters. Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet met with her ministers to oversee the emergency response.
The fires began Saturday in a forested ravine and quickly consumed ramshackle housing on one of Valparaiso’s 42 hills. Hot dry winds blowing out to sea then kicked up the embers, which hopped across neighborhoods on six densely populated hills, where people live in poorly constructed homes without municipal water connections, fire hydrants or streets wide enough for emergency vehicles.
Sunday afternoon’s winds kicked up the flames again, and by Monday morning, the helicopters were still flying without pause, dumping water on hotspots.
Schools were closed Monday in the city, since some were damaged and others were overflowing with evacuees.
Bachelet toured the shelters and canceled this week’s trip to Argentina and Uruguay, warning that it “could be the worst fire in the city’s history.”
Valparaiso is an oceanside city of 250,000 people surrounded by hills that form a natural amphitheater. The compact downtown includes Chile’s congress and its second-largest port, and the city owes its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site to the colorful homes built on slopes so steep that many people commute using staircases and cable cars.
But what’s beautiful on postcards can be dangerous for those who live there: Many people have built on land not fit for housing.
“We are too vulnerable as a city. We have been the builders and architects of our own danger,” Valparaiso Mayor Jorge Castro said Sunday in an interview with Chile’s 24H channel.
Three of the 12 victims were identified, including one man who escaped the flames Saturday, but died of a heart attack on Sunday after returning to discover that the flames took everything he had. Nine of the bodies were so badly burned that DNA tests will be done, the national forensics service said. More than 500 people were treated at hospitals, mostly for smoke inhalation.
It was already the city’s worst fire since 1953, when 50 people were killed. Bachelet put the entire city under military rule. In all, 5,000 firefighters, police, forest rangers, soldiers, sailors and civil defense workers joined the government response, the emergency office said Monday.
Associated Press Writers Marianela Jarroud and Eva Vergara contributed from Santiago, Chile.