VALPARAïSO, Chile (AFP) - At least 16 people were confirmed dead and more than 10,000 evacuated on Sunday after a huge fire tore through Chile's historic port city of Valparaiso, officials said.
The blaze, which started in nearby woods on Saturday, gutted 500 homes as a wall of flames advanced on the city of 270,000, famed for its Unesco-listed center.
"It is a terrible tragedy, without doubt the worst fire in the history of Valparaiso," President Michelle Bachelet declared after arriving in the city to oversee the emergency response to the disaster. "Families have not only lost their homes and their possessions but also their family memories," she lamented during a tour of the worst-hit areas.
The cause of the inferno remains under investigation. Ms Bachelet has declared the area a disaster zone, allowing the armed forces to assist in the relief efforts.
The stench of smoke and charred wood shrouded Valparaiso as dawn broke, with firefighters still working to battle the flames that so far has ravaged just under 809ha.
Residents who had been evacuated returned to their neighborhoods to discover their homes reduced to smoldering ruins.
Mother-of-four Monica Vergara said she had lost everything but voiced relief that her children were safe.
"I heard a huge explosion and it felt like our house lifted up. A fireman evacuated us," she told AFP. "I've lost everything but my four children are safe and that's all that matters."
The overnight death toll increased from four to 16 early Sunday as rescuers began discovering bodies in destroyed dwellings.
"At this time there are 16 confirmed dead," Valparaiso Police Chief Julio Pineda told 24 Horas television.
Roughly 500 people were being treated for injuries, mostly minor but some serious.
Firefighters warned that extinguishing the flames was complicated by the area's hilly geography, narrow streets and persistent strong winds.
Overnight, many residents watched helpless, from distant vantage points, as the hills burned bright red. Thick smoke clouded the sky.
Those caught in the path of the blaze after it erupted Saturday afternoon reported a fast-moving inferno that roared toward town, fanned by winds and searing temperatures.
"It was as if hell encircled my family," Mr Miguel Ramirez told AFP.
"The fire raced down the hills and destroyed everything in its path."
More than 200 inmates at a women's prison were evacuated due to "large amounts of smoke produced by the fire", said Mr Tulio Arce, the regional jail guard director.
With the city spread out over more than 40 hills, emergency vehicles had trouble getting to their destinations.
"My brother's house was entirely burnt. We had only finished it two weeks ago. We tried to save something but it was truly an inferno," one resident Cristobal Perez told the Chilevision television network.
"I started to become overcome by the smoke along with my two dogs. It was terrible - impossible to breathe," another resident told the channel.
The vast blaze has caused cuts to power and drinking water in many areas.
Valparaiso is one of Chile's most important ports. It lived its era of glory from the mid-19th century to the early 20th as a stopover point for ships steaming down South America and to round its southern tip into the Atlantic Ocean.
The centre of the city still features the many colored houses dating from that period, built by European immigrants. Its cobbled streets and funicular trams running up near-vertical rails supported its 2003 listing as a Unesco-protected heritage site.
Fires occur frequently in central Chile, where summer sends temperatures soaring. In February 2013, some 105 homes were destroyed in Valparaiso, affecting 1,200 people, after a 27-year-old man started a blaze.