International aid pours in as Chile battles wildfires

Chilean firefighters battling to contain a blaze in a forest in Concepcion, 450km south of the capital Santiago. Chile declared a state of emergency last week over the forest fires.
Chilean firefighters battling to contain a blaze in a forest in Concepcion, 450km south of the capital Santiago. Chile declared a state of emergency last week over the forest fires.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SANTIAGO • The worst wildfires in Chile's modern history are ravaging wide swathes of the country's central and southern regions, as a massive Boeing 747-400 SuperTanker arrived on loan from the United States to help extinguish the blazes.

"We have never seen something of this size, never in Chile's history," President Michelle Bachelet said, as she visited the hard-hit Maule region.

"And the truth is, the (firefighting) forces are doing everything that is humanly possible and will continue to do so until the fires are contained and controlled."

Six people - among them four firefighters and two police officers - have now been killed battling the vast forest fires, officials said on Wednesday.

Two members of the Chilean police who were found in the Maule River are among the fatalities, said Interior Minister Mario Fernandez.

Earlier in the day, a firefighter died after getting stuck while trying to help a family escape from their home near the city of Constitucion, a source in the fire service said.

Over the past week, three other firefighters died and another three were injured.

Forest fires are a regular feature of Chile's hot, arid summers, but a nearly decade-long drought combined with historically high temperatures have created tinder-dry conditions.

International aid from France, the US, Peru and Mexico has been pouring into Chile as the fires swept through forested hills and into neighbouring towns, scorching homes, industry and the region's world-renowned vineyards.

The country last week declared a state of emergency.

As of Wednesday, 85 separate fires had been recorded, covering some 190,000ha. Chile's Conaf forestry service said that 35 of the fires were still out of control.

At least some of the fires may have been started intentionally and there have been a number of arrests in relation to ongoing investigations, said Ms Bachelet.

Frantic locals have been joining in efforts to tackle the blaze to save their homes, animals and farmland.

Some Chileans - such as Ms Susana Molina, 82, a boutique wine producer from Cauquenes in the Maule region - have seen their livelihoods destroyed.

"All my fields burned, there were 4ha that I had and it all burned," she said.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2017, with the headline 'International aid pours in as Chile battles wildfires'. Print Edition | Subscribe