13 dead as Chile forest fires provoke state of disaster

SANTIAGO (AFP): Chile has declared a state of disaster in several central-southern regions after a devastating heat wave sparked forest fires that left at least 13 people dead, authorities said Friday.

More than 100 homes have been affected and 47,000 hectares of forest destroyed since the fires broke out on Wednesday.

“We have to announce that there are 13 deaths in total, 11 in the Santa Juana municipality,” head of the Senaprad national disaster agency Mauricio Tapia said.

Two crew members of a helicopter that was fighting the fires died in a crash Friday afternoon, Chile’s agriculture minister Esteban Valenzuela said.

“I am very sad about the helicopter crash which killed the pilot and a mechanic who were working to fight the fire” in the La Araucania region, said Valenzuela.

Tapia later added that the pilot was Bolivian and the mechanic Chilean.

The death toll included at least four civilians and a firefighter previously reported killed.

The government has declared a state of disaster in the regions of Nuble and Biobio, but fires have also affected the Maule and La Araucania regions.

President Gabriel Boric decided to suspend his holiday to visit the affected area, where there are 204 active fires.

Of those, 56 are considered out of control.

Interior Minister Carolina Toha said the four civilians had died in the Biobio region.

She added that two of the dead were killed when the fires engulfed the road they were traveling on, while the other two died in a car accident, presumably while trying to escape the inferno.

Authorities later said a firefighter had also been killed.

The Senapred national disaster prevention and response service and the CONAF national forests corporation said nine people have been hurt, including eight firefighters.

Some 2,300 firefighters and 75 aircraft are involved in the battle against the flames.

The declaration of a state of disaster allows extra resources to be made available to combat an emergency.

Nuble has been put on red alert, alongside seven municipalities in Biobio.

The heatwave, with temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), has created fears of a repeat of the 2017 disaster in which widespread fires in the same region left 11 people dead, destroyed 1,500 homes and affected 467,000 hectares of forest.