Forest fires ripping through central Chile’s coastal hills since Friday have killed at least 19 people and destroyed more than 1,000 homes, with many more feared dead, according to the national government.
The wildfires are encroaching on Viña del Mar and Valparaíso, two cities that form a sprawling region that is home to more than one million people on Chile’s central coastline, about 75 miles northeast of the capital, Santiago.
Just after midday, President Gabriel Boric flew over the area in a helicopter, and said his government had worked to “secure the greatest resources” in Chile’s history to fight the blazes during the country’s wildfire season, which typically hits during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer and reaches a peak in February.
“I assure you all that we will be there as a government to help you recover,” he wrote on the social media platform X.
On Friday night, President Boric issued a constitutional decree granting his government additional powers to combat the fires.
The Chilean wildfires come as Colombia has also been battling blazes in the mountains around Bogotá, the capital, as dozens of other blazes have burned across the country, in what officials say is the hottest January there in three decades. Climatologists have linked the extreme dryness there and wildfires to warming trends afflicting South America.
Various Chilean agencies, as well as the country’s air force, have deployed 92 planes to fly over the fires dropping water. The government has also issued a steady trickle of evacuation notices, mixed with pleas for calm.
Makeshift refuges and support centers have sprung up in several towns, with local authorities calling for donations of drinking water, mattresses, blankets and food.
The interior ministry imposed a 9 p.m. Saturday curfew in Viña del Mar as well as in several nearby towns.
On Saturday morning, Chile’s interior minister, Carolina Tohá, announced that 15 of the 19 victims had been identified so far, among them a 17-year-old girl.
Ms. Tohá warned that the death toll was likely to rise once authorities gained access to the affected areas. She added that 92 fires were still burning nationwide — 29 of which are still being fought and 40 of which have been brought are under control — with more than 160 square miles of land already having been ravaged by the fires.
The mayor of Viña del Mar, Macarena Ripamonti, said that in addition to the confirmed fatalities, 249 more people had been reported missing.
Eight areas of the city have been evacuated, including patients from a hospital clinic whom police and firefighters have moved to other facilities.
This January was the second hottest on record in Santiago; the hottest was in 2017, a year also affected by the El Niño weather phenomenon, which typically brings high temperatures and heavy rainfall to the Pacific Coast of South America.
While wildfires afflict central and southern Chile each summer, the regional director of Chile’s national forestry commission for Valparaíso, Leonardo Moder, said that one of the fires appeared to have been started deliberately and was racing toward Viña del Mar.
Valparaíso’s City Council has begun a criminal investigation, officials said.