At least 23 dead in dozens of forest fires in Chile

SANTIAGO, Feb 4 (Reuters) – Dozens of wildfires raging in Chile forced the government to extend an emergency order to another region on Saturday, as scorching summer heat complicates efforts to fight the fires, which have already claimed the lives of at least 23 people.

More than 1,100 people have taken refuge in the shelters, while at least 979 people have been injured in the raging fires, according to an official briefing later on Saturday.

The latest emergency order covers the southern region of Araucania, next to the previously declared regions of Biobio and Nuble, located near the middle of the South American country’s long Pacific coast.

“Weather conditions make it very difficult to put out (the fires) that are spreading and the emergency is getting worse,” Interior Minister Carolina Toja told reporters at a press conference in the capital Santiago.

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“We need to change that curve,” she added, noting that 76 more fires broke out on Friday.

16 more fires sprang up Saturday, officials said, as local temperatures in the Southern Hemisphere summer topped 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 Celsius).

The three sparsely populated areas under the state of emergency are home to many farms, including those growing grapes, apples and berries for export, as well as extensive tracts of forest land.

Officials told reporters on Saturday that the governments of Spain, the United States, Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil and Venezuela have offered assistance, including planes and firefighters.

An emergency helicopter crashed in La Araucanía on Friday, killing its pilot and mechanic, officials said.

Authorities said 11 victims, or nearly half of the reported victims so far, died in the city of Santa Juana in Biobio, located about 310 miles (500 km) south of Santiago.

Since late last week, helicopters have been dropping flame retardants on raging fires as clouds of smoke block roads. Firefighters and locals struggle to contain the blaze against a hazy orange sky.

Orders allow you to use soldiers and additional resources to deal with a natural disaster.

The fires burned about 40,000 hectares (99,000 acres), more than the area of ​​the US city of Philadelphia, according to official figures released late Friday night.

The national forestry agency CONAF said on Saturday that 80 of the 231 wildfires are actively fighting and 151 of them are under control.

Officials said more than 90% of the wildfires were extinguished before they spread beyond 12 acres (5 hectares).

But for those unfortunate enough to be caught in one of the out-of-control wildfires, immediate evacuation was the only option.

“I left in what I was wearing,” said Carolina Torres, who was fleeing an approaching fire near the town of Puren, in the Araucania region.

“I think everyone here did the same thing because the wind changed and everything had to be grabbed at once.”

On Friday, President Gabriel Boric cut short his summer vacation and traveled to Nublé and Biobio, promising to ensure that the affected areas receive all the support they need.

Boric also pointed to “indications” that some of the fires may have been started on purpose, but did not provide any further details.

Reporting by Fabian Cambero and Natalia A. Ramos Miranda; Additional report by Diego Ore; Writing by David Alier Garcia; Edited by Marguerite Choi and Sandra Mahler

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