A man stands in the ruins of Chile wildfires.

A man stands in the ruins of houses that were destroyed by a fire in Quilpue, Chile, on February 4, 2024.

(Photo: Lucas Aguayo Araos/Anadolu via Getty Images)

'Like a War Zone': At Least 122 Killed in Deadliest Fires in Chile's History

"We are becoming one of the most vulnerable territories in the world to fires," Chilean president Gabriel Boric said in 2023.

Extreme wildfires made more likely by the ongoing climate crisis killed at least 122 people in Chile, destroyed at least 6,000 homes, and damaged around 14,000 as the country entered a two-day morning period on Monday after a weekend of destruction and chaos.

The fires, which ignited in the coastal region of Valparaíso late last week, were "without a doubt" the deadliest in the country's history, Interior Minister Carolina Toha said, as Le Mondereported. President Gabriel Boric said Sunday that the fires were also Chile's deadliest disaster overall since an earthquake and tsunami in 2010 and that the death toll would "increase in a significant way."

"We're facing an unprecedented catastrophe," mayor of hard-hit city Viña del Mar Macarena Ripamonti said, "a situation of this magnitude has never happened in the Valparaíso region."

"There was smoke, the sky turned black, everything was dark. The wind felt like a hurricane. It was like being in hell."

The fires first ignited in hard-to-access wooded hillsides around Viña del Mar, a popular tourist destination on the coast, according toThe Associated Press. But they then descended upon developed areas, fueled by drought and heatwave. With temperatures in the area reaching 40°C, the fires devoured a famous botanical garden in the city on Sunday and rendered at least 1,600 people homeless, according to AP. The nearby towns of Quilpe and Villa Alemana were also impacted.

"From one moment to the next, the fire reached the botanical park. In ten minutes the fire was already on us," Jesica Barrios, whose Viña del Mar home was one of those destroyed, toldReuters. "There was smoke, the sky turned black, everything was dark. The wind felt like a hurricane. It was like being in hell."

Another resident of nearby Villa Independencia evacuated her home on Friday to find it destroyed on Monday.

"It's like a war zone, as if a bomb went off," 63-year-old Jacqueline Atenas said. "It burned like someone was throwing gasoline on the houses. I don't understand what happened... There was a lot of wind, a lot of wind and big balls of fire that would fly by."

Drone footage shared by The Guardian showed blocks of homes torched and reduced to rubble and ashes.

"We need help, pet food, supplies, clothing," one woman told The Guardian. "I don't know. My house, I lost everything, everything."

Boric declared an emergency in Chile's central and southern regions due to the fires. "All of Chile is suffering," Boric said, "but we will stand up once again."

Deputy Interior Minister Manuel Monsalve said that 165 fires were still blazing as of Sunday night, though cooler and cloudier weather predicted for the next few days should help firefighters to control them, according to Reuters. The AP reported that fires burned less intensely on Monday.

Toha said that 43,000 hectares had burned as of Saturday, according to AFP. On Sunday, Toha said around 1,400 firefighters had been sent to fight the flames, as BBC News reported. The military is also assisting emergency services.

There are reports that some of the fires may have been intentionally started.

"These fires began in four points that lit up simultaneously," Valparaíso Governor Rodrigo Mundaca said Sunday, as AP reported. "As authorities we will have to work rigorously to find who is responsible."

El Niño conditions have also brought a drought and heatwave to southern South America during its summer, creating ideal conditions for fire. At the same time, scientists point out that this occurs in the broader context of an ongoing climate crisis driven primarily by the burning of fossil fuels.

"No country can address the Climate Crisis alone. We need a global phase out of fossil fuels."

The fires ignited weeks after a study published in Nature on January 23 concluded that "the concurrence of El Niño and climate-fueled droughts and heatwaves boost the local fire risk and have decisively contributed to the intense fire activity recently seen in Central Chile."

Fires burned three times as many acres last decade compared to the one before, and six of the seven most destructive fire seasons in Chile's history have happened since 2014.

"In the last few years, our country has lived through the impacts of climate change," Boric said last year, which also saw intense fires, as Mongabayreported. "We are becoming one of the most vulnerable territories in the world to fires."

This is not an experience unique to Chile, as Canada's record-breaking wildfire season during summer 2023 attests. Texas Tech University climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe explained on social media that "climate change is the difference between dropping a match into green, wet wood vs. bone-dry kindling that's been baking in unseasonably warm temps for weeks. That's how climate change is making wildfires bigger and more dangerous, regardless of their cause."

In a thread on social media, Cardiff University School of Social Sciences graduate student Aaron Thierry explained the climactic context for Chile's fires, including an ongoing drought and record-breaking heatwave and increased fires across South America.

While Chile's government is aware of and taking action on the problem, "no country can address the Climate Crisis alone," Thierry said. "We need a global phase out of fossil fuels. That means all countries need politicians who will deliver this transformative shift in governance. That means we need to get out and vote for them!"

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