Hundreds homeless as fire ravages Chilean city

By Harriet Alexander in London

A man cries next to the remains of his house after a forest fire destroyed it in Valparaiso, Chile. Photo / AP
A man cries next to the remains of his house after a forest fire destroyed it in Valparaiso, Chile. Photo / AP

A huge fire has engulfed a Chilean port city registered as a World Heritage site for its historic collection of wooden buildings and railways.

Eleven people have been killed and at least 500 homes destroyed in the hillsides of Valparaiso, known as the "San Francisco of the South" for its steep streets, trams and funicular railways. Fanned by strong winds from the Pacific, the fire blazed through more than 1,700 acres of forest and residential areas that sweep up from the port.

Watch: Raw: Fire rips through Chilean community

"Valparaiso is without electricity at the moment," said Jorge Castro, the mayor of the city of 270,000. "This means the flame column is creating a Dante-esque panorama, and is advancing in an apparently uncontrollable manner." Some 1,200 firemen were battling the blaze, using three planes and four helicopters to drop water, but could not prevent the destruction of entire districts.

By yesterday morning, the scale of the devastation was clear.

"This is the worst catastrophe I've seen," said Ricardo Bravo, the regional governor. "Now we have to make sure the fire doesn't reach the city centre."

Read more:
11 dead after huge fire in historic Chile town

Michelle Bachelet, the Chilean president, declared a state of emergency and sent the army to patrol the streets and prevent looting. "It's a tremendous tragedy, perhaps the worst fire in the city's history", she said.

The country's Congress - which has been housed in Valparaiso, rather than the capital Santiago, since the days of General Augusto Pinochet - and the city's historic quarter, with its late 19th century architecture, were spared by the fires.

But as some of the 10,000 evacuated residents begun returning to their hillside homes, many built of wood, they found them burnt to the ground.

"We fled from the La Cruz neighbourhood, from an apartment I just got not too long ago. It's all burned down, my sister's house also burnt to the ground," said Rosa Guzman.

Photos: Forest fires rage in Chile town

Images on Chilean television showed residents sifting through the charred remains of their houses, as planes carrying water buzzed overhead. Francisca Granados, who spent the night with friends in neighbouring Vina del Mar, was shown returning home. "It's frightening, everything is burned," she said.

The city, which became Chile's first port in 1554, draws many tourists to its pastel-coloured wooden buildings. A series of wooden funicular lifts, take people from the residential hilltops down to the industrial port area. And Pablo Neruda, the celebrated Chilean poet, built a clifftop home in the city, which he used as a base to write his books.

Until the construction of the Panama Canal, Valparaiso was a vital port on the Pacific, and in the 1880s attracted immigrants from Britain, the United States, Germany and Spain. After falling into decline in the mid 1900s, in recent years the city has revived and is now a bustling cultural hub with a large student population. The fire is the second disaster to befall Chile in the first month of Ms Bachelet's presidency. Two weeks earlier the country was rocked by an earthquake measuring 8.2 on the Richter scale.

The president, beginning her second term, said that everything possible would be done to restore the devastated neighbourhoods.

"It's a terrible scene," she said. "But the people of Valparaiso are strong and courageous. They are not on their own."

- Daily Telegraph UK

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