Volunteers in central Chile on Monday attempted to remove charred metal, broken glass and other debris from neighborhoods devastated by wildfires in recent days, as authorities raised the death toll to 122. Hundreds of people remain missing.
The fires appeared to have subsided on Monday morning after burning intensely since Friday in the eastern end of the city of Viña del Mar. Two other towns in the Valparaíso region, Quilpe and Villa Alemana, were also seriously affected, and the President Gabriel Boric said on Sunday it was reported that at least 3,000 homes had been burned in the area.
On Monday afternoon, 10 more victims were added to the death toll, bringing the number to 122, said Marisol Prado, director of Chile’s Forensic Medical Service.
Prado said many bodies were in poor condition and difficult to identify, but added that forensic workers would be taking samples of genetic material from people who have reported missing relatives.
Viña del Mar Mayor Macarena Ripamonti said at least 370 people have been reported missing in the city of about 300,000 residents.
The fires devastated several neighborhoods that had been precariously built in the mountains that rise east of Viña del Mar, which is also a popular beach resort.
Authorities have suggested that some of the wildfires around the city could have been set intentionally. Dry weather, strong winds and low humidity helped the fires spread faster, Boric said.
Priscila Rivero, a chef from the Alto Miraflores neighborhood, said it took about 15 minutes for the flames to travel from a neighboring hill to her house.
He said he took his children to safety when he saw the fire approaching, but when he returned to rescue some of his possessions his house was burning, with flames coming out of the windows.
“It’s the place where we have lived all our lives,” Rivero said. “It’s very sad to see it destroyed and to lose our memories, our photos, my parents’ wedding photos, but some of that will remain in our hearts.”
Schools and other public buildings in Viña del Mar and in the capital city of Santiago currently serve as warehouses, where people bring donations of water, food, candles and shovels for fire victims.
Sifting through the rubble
In Viña del Mar and the nearby towns of Villa Alemana and Quilpe, police have asked people who have not been affected by the fires to stay in their homes so that rescue teams can move more easily.
Hundreds of people affected by the fires returned to their homes on Monday to search through the rubble. Many have said they prefer to sleep near their homes to prevent looters from seizing what remains of their possessions or claiming the land on which their homes were built.
In the Villa Independencia neighborhood, on the eastern outskirts of Viña del Mar, Marco Delgadillo tried to clean up the rubble of his house, which he built 25 years ago, when the area was randomly colonized by workers without building permits.
The furniture in Delgadillo’s house had been consumed by flames and the walls blackened by smoke, but they were still standing.
The construction worker said he would rebuild and urged the municipal government to help him fix the collapsed roof of his house before winter begins in the southern hemisphere.
“We have no choice,” Delgadillo said. “Buying new land right now is unaffordable.”