VALPARAISO, Chile – With all of Valparaiso under military rule early Tuesday, 5,000 firefighters, police, forest rangers, soldiers, sailors and civil defense workers joined in a mammoth fight against wildfires licking around the hilltop shantytowns of this picturesque port city.
Helicopters and airplanes dropped water on the flames and smoldering ruins of some of the poor neighborhoods throughout Monday, the third day since flames first erupted in a forested ravine on the outskirts of Valparaiso and then were quickly spread by strong winds that scattered glowing embers into slums.
Navy officer Julio Leiva said the death toll rose to 15 Monday, with the discovery of another body in the wreckage. More than 500 people had been treated at hospitals, mostly for smoke inhalation.
An estimated 11,000 people were homeless as the toll of destroyed homes rose to more than 2,500. A contingent of sailors in riot gear stood ready to evacuate 700 more families whose homes could be lost if the winds shifted.
The fires have been so hot they created their own fierce winds, spreading flames that consumed a few entire neighborhoods of ramshackle housing. Homes stood unscathed in other districts but remained in danger from the embers being whipped through the air.
"We are looking at the largest air operation ever assembled against a fire like this," Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said. She said the blazes had grown to "dimensions never before seen."
Chile's forestry agency predicted it would take three weeks to completely stamp out the fires.
Some people left shelters set up by authorities Monday and made their way home only to discover ruins. Hundreds of young volunteers climbed up the hills to carry bottles of water and shovels to help the victims pick through the wreckage.
"We're going to rebuild right here. Where else would we go?" said Carolina Ovando, 22, who lost the humble home where she had lived with three small children.
Schools have been closed, some of them damaged by fires and others jammed with evacuees.
Bachelet, who decreed the city under military rule, coordinated the emergency response with her Cabinet, cancelling a trip to Argentina and Uruguay. She asked Chile's neighbors for backup in case of other fires, freeing Chilean planes and helicopters to join the fleet in Valparaiso.
Valparaiso is an oceanside city of 250,000 people surrounded by 42 ills that form a natural amphitheater. The compact downtown includes Chile's congress and its second-largest port, and the city owes its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site to the colorful homes built on slopes so steep that many people commute using stairs and cable cars.
But what's beautiful on postcards can be dangerous for those who live there: Many people have built flimsy homes on land not fit for housing. Many of the poor neighborhoods have no municipal water or sewer connections, fire hydrants or streets wide enough for emergency vehicles.
"We are too vulnerable as a city. We have been the builders and architects of our own danger," Valparaiso Mayor Jorge Castro said Sunday in an interview with Chile's 24H channel.