Search for hundreds of missing people underway in Chile after wildfires ravage neighbourhoods

Volunteers in central Chile tried to remove charred metal, broken glass and other debris Monday from neighbourhoods devastated by wildfires over the past several days, as officials raised the death toll to 122. Hundreds of people remain missing.

The fires appeared to have diminished by Monday morning after burning intensely since Friday on the eastern edge of the city of Vina del Mar. Two other towns in the Valparaiso region, Quilpe and Villa Alemana, also have been hit hard, and President Gabriel Boric said Sunday that at least 3,000 homes had been burned down in the area.

An additional 10 victims were added to the death toll on Monday afternoon, bringing it to 122, said Marisol Prado, the director of Chile’s Forensic Medical Service.

WATCH | Chile’s devasated neighbhourhoods: 

Wildfires in Chile scorch neighbourhoods, burn down homes

On Sunday, deadly fires swept through Vina del Mar, Chile, destroying entire neighbourhoods and leaving smoking ruins of homes as residents were left to pick through the rubble and salvage what was left.

Prado said that many bodies were in bad condition and difficult to identify, but added that forensic workers would be taking samples of genetic material from people who have reported missing relatives.

Vina del Mar’s Mayor Macarena Ripamonti said that at least 370 people have been reported missing in the city of about 300,000 residents.

The fires ravaged several neighbourhoods that had been precariously built on the mountains that loom to the east of Vina del Mar, which is also a popular beach resort.

Officials have suggested that some of the wildfires around the city could have been intentionally provoked. Dry weather, strong winds and low humidity helped the fires spread faster, Boric said.

A couple sit in their burned-out home.
Camila Lange, who is seven months pregnant, and her husband Felipe Corvalan sit with their dog Florencia inside their home that was burned by a deadly forest fire in Vina del Mar, Chile, on Monday. (Esteban Felix/The Associated Press)

Priscila Rivero, a chef from the neighbourhood of Alto Miraflores, said that it took about 15 minutes for the flames to travel from a neighbouring hill to her home.

She said she rushed her children to safety when she saw the fire approaching, but by the time she returned to salvage some of her possessions her house was burning, with licks of flame emerging from the windows.

“It’s the place where we have lived all our lives” Rivero said. “It’s so sad to see it destroyed, and to lose our memories, our photos, the pictures from my parents’ wedding, but some of that will remain in our hearts.”

Schools and other public buildings in Vina del Mar and in the capital city of Santiago are currently serving as depots, where people are taking donations of water, food, candles and shovels for the victims of the fires.

Sifting through the rubble

In Vina 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 at home so that rescue crews can move around with more ease.

Hundreds of people affected by the fires returned to their homes on Monday to search through the debris. Many have said they prefer to sleep near their homes in order to prevent looters from taking what is left of their possessions, or from claiming the land their homes were built on.

People sift through the rubble of a wildfire.
People clean up amid the rubble of homes burned by deadly forest fires in Vina del Mar, Chile, on Monday. (Esteban Felix/The Associated Press)

In the neighbourhood of Villa Independencia, on Vina del Mar’s eastern periphery, Marco Delgadillo tried to clear rubble from his home, which he built 25 years ago, when the area was first settled haphazardly by workers without construction permits.

The furniture in Delgadillo’s house had been devoured by the flames and the walls were blackened by smoke, but they still stood.

The construction worker said he would rebuild and urged the municipal government to help him fix the collapsed roof of his home before winter starts in the southern hemisphere.

“We don’t have any other choice,” Delgadillo said. “Buying a new plot of land is unaffordable right now.”

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