SANTIAGO, Feb 5 (Reuters) – Firefighters battled dozens of wildfires in Chile on Sunday, seeking to gain control of one of the country’s worst natural disasters in years as the death toll soared at least 24 and nearly 1,000 more injured.
International aid began arriving on Sunday from a handful of countries that have pledged resources, including aircraft and expert firefighting teams, as the most intense wildfires set forests ablaze and farmland clustered around three regions near the middle of the South American country’s long Pacific coast.
President Gabriel Boric issued emergency declarations for the largely rural southern regions of Biobio, Nuble and Araucania in a bid to speed up relief efforts.
Speaking from the town of Puren in Araucania on Sunday, Boric stressed that his government would provide all necessary resources, while also seeking to inspire solidarity in the face of the deadly fires.
“I have seen the resilience of our people, and it is exactly that spirit that must guide us through this difficult time,” he said. “All together, we will come out on top.”
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The fires have consumed some 270,000 hectares, officials said on Sunday, an area roughly the size of the US state of Rhode Island.
A scorching heat wave in the Southern Hemisphere summer complicated efforts to extinguish the blazes, as temperatures in some of the hardest-hit areas exceeded 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius).
On Saturday evening, pockets of intense fire could be seen springing from forested hills off the town of Dichato, just outside the town of Concepcion in the Biobio region, as light from the flames illuminated boats in the little harbour.
Thirteen of the dead – more than half of the victims reported by the fires – are from Biobio, which, like Nuble and Araucania, is home to vast forests as well as farms that grow grapes and other fruits for export.
In some places, the fires have sparked a frantic race for the safety of those lucky enough to have options before the oncoming flames.
“Come into the pool!” Get in the pool, up to your neck,” a woman said, shouting at her parents at the family home near the hard-hit Biobio town of Santa Juana, but refusing to give her name.
She described a hasty effort to find a safe place to hide, including leaving vehicles behind, as well as pleading with neighbors to join them in the pool.
Some 260 fires are active in the arid region, Interior Ministry officials said on Sunday, with 28 considered particularly dangerous.
Nearly 1,500 people have fled to shelters in the area. At least 26 of the 970 injured are listed in serious condition in local hospitals.
Chilean authorities have requested international assistance to fight the fires, and new ones are breaking out every day.
Authorities said they were facilitating the arrival of aid from Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Portugal and Venezuela.
Foreign aid was already on the ground.
A Spanish military unit was due to do so, officials said on Sunday, adding that a so-called Ten Tanker aircraft with a firefighting capacity of 36,000 liters is expected to arrive on Monday.
Meanwhile, a specialized team of Argentine personnel and trucks also arrived on Sunday, along with two military aircraft and around 300 Mexican volunteers, according to Chile’s foreign ministry.
Reporting by Fabian Cambero; Additional reporting by Diego Ore; Written by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Mark Porter and Diane Craft
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