Residents return after fleeing Chile port city inferno

March 15, 2015
VALPARAÍSO, Chile — Thousands of residents began returning to their Valparaíso homes Saturday, hours after fleeing a still-smoldering forest fire that threatened the treasured Chilean seaport city, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The fire claimed one life, and led to thousands of evacuations in the historic city known as the “pearl of the Pacific.”

But while it kept raging Saturday and was responsible for numerous injuries Friday night, authorities said the fire no longer poses a risk to human life.

Most of the 7,000 people who had been evacuated after Chile declared a state of emergency Friday were permitted to return home, after the fire’s “marginal” nighttime spread, according to one official.

But high temperatures and strong winds prevented fire crews from completely extinguishing the flames, particularly on the city’s hillsides, Deputy Interior Secretary Mahmud Aleuy said.

“The progress we are making has meant that in the six areas where we are having the toughest time, four of them are now under control,” he said. There were 32 hurt including 19 firemen, authorities said.

“We do have 32 people who have been injured,” Aleuy added. “None of the firemen has sustained a life-threatening injury.”

The fire started at a landfill in an area of ​​grassland and pine forest near a major thoroughfare connecting Valparaíso with several villages.

A 67-year-old woman died from a heart attack, authorities said, after the national emergency office declared a red alert for Valparaíso and the neighboring city of Viña del Mar.

A total of 300 hectares (740 acres) of land was burned, no houses were destroyed and all evacuees had been permitted to return home except for around 50 who remained in shelters, Aleuy said Saturday.

“We were five minutes from having our apartment burn up,” sighed evacuee Juan Salmora. “The lights went out, people were panicking and it was total chaos.”

‘No major difficulties’

The port city, visited by thousands of tourists every year, is still rebuilding following deadly blazes last April that killed 15 people.

“We have no major difficulties,” Aleuy said, in sharp contrast with last year’s fire, which destroyed thousands of homes, particularly in the city’s poorer neighborhoods.

The wooden structures with their tin roofs, perched precariously on the coastal city’s tinder-dry hillsides, had been quickly engulfed.

“The situation distresses the population, which is still living with the memory of last year’s fire,” Jorge Castro, mayor of the city of some 270,000, said.

Authorities, who asked the public to avoid traveling to the region, have dispatched soldiers and police for night patrols, and sent seven aircraft and eight helicopters.

Meanwhile, the main road leading to Santiago was closed due to the flames, which lapped dangerously close to a power plant and high voltage towers at certain points during the night.

Valparaíso’s old town is known for its cobbled streets and colored houses dating from the city’s glory days in the mid-19th to early 20th century.

The city, located about 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the capital Santiago, became famous as a stopover point for ships steaming down South America heading toward the continent’s southern tip and then the Atlantic Ocean.

It is also famous for its iconic funicular railways up the hills, which are still in use.

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