SANTIAGO, Chila — Chilean firefighters are struggling to control a blaze around the city of Valparaiso that has destroyed more than 2,000 homes, just two weeks after an earthquake collapsed houses in the north of the country.
The fire has burnt for two days, razing buildings across the hills above the port, killing 12 people and leaving more than 8,000 homeless, according to Interior Minister Rodrigo Penailillo. The fire continues to smolder in the woodland to the north of the city.
“This is a fire of proportions never seen before” in Chile, President Michelle Bachelet told reporters Monday. “Our government will use all the necessary resources to put an end to this tragedy.”
Chile faces a reconstruction effort on two fronts following the fire and the April 1 earthquake that severely damaged 1,600 houses and damaged a further 10,000. In Valparaiso, residents picked through the smoldering remains of their homes Monday as smoke billowed over the city from the surrounding fires. Soldiers patrolled the streets, while thousands of firefighters from across the country tackled the blazes.
Valparaiso was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations in July 2003 and cultural capital of Chile in the same year. The fire has yet to affect the historic center of the port that was a stopping point for ships on the route from Europe to the west coast of the U.S. before the Panama canal opened.
The government has set up eight shelters for those affected by the fire, which have already received more than 1,200 people, according to Penailillo. The government will also provide funds to the affected families to buy clothes and food.
Chile has also asked for planes from Argentina to tackle the blaze, according to the government’s spokesman Alvaro Elizalde.
The fire started on the afternoon of April 12 in the forests outside Valparaiso before a northerly wind whipped up the flames and drove them toward the city. That night they burnt houses on the hills above the city, where the steep slopes and narrow streets made it hard for firefighters to reach.
The following morning the wind died down and firefighters brought the blaze under control, before the wind picked up again in the afternoon, reviving the fire in the forests above the city.
Bachelet, who canceled a trip to Argentina because of the fire, decreed a state of catastrophe, handing over security in the town to the armed forces.
Valparaiso, where most of the houses in the poorer neighborhoods on the hills are built of wood, has been hit by similar fires over the past six years. Residents are now calling for materials to rebuild their homes on the same slopes.