SANTIAGO, Chile – A raging fire leaped from hilltop to hilltop in this colorful port city, killing at least 16 people and destroying more than 500 homes. More than 10,000 people were evacuated, including more than 200 female inmates at a prison.
The fire began Saturday afternoon in a forested area above ramshackle housing on one of the city's many hilltops, and spread quickly as high winds rained hot ash over wooden houses and narrow streets. Electricity failed as the fire grew, with towering, sparking flames turning the night sky orange over the darkened remains of entire neighborhoods.
"It's a tremendous tragedy. This could be the worst fire in the city's history," President Michelle Bachelet said as firefighters contained most of the blazes, mobilizing 18 helicopters and planes to drop water on hotspots Sunday.
Bachelet warned that the toll of death and damage would rise once authorities can enter the smoldering remains. Military Police Gen. Julio Pineda said 16 were killed and more than 500 people were injured. Patricio Bustos, who directs the national forensics service, said DNA tests would be needed to identify remains.
It was already the worst fire to hit the picturesque seaside city of 250,000 people since 1953, when 50 people were killed and every structure was destroyed on several of the city's hills.
While the fires were mostly contained to several of hilltops, Bachelet declared the entire city a catastrophe zone, putting Chile's military in charge of maintaining order. "The people of Valparaiso have courage, have strength and they aren't alone," Bachelet said.
Valparaiso, which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2003, is known for colorful neighborhoods hugging hills so steep that people have to use staircases rather than streets. About 75 miles northwest of the capital, Santiago, it has a vibrant port and is home to Chile's national legislature.
But many homes in poorer areas above the city center have been built without water supplies or access points would enable firefighters to intervene, so much of the fight was from the air.
"This is the worst catastrophe I've seen," said Ricardo Bravo, the regional governor. "Now we have to make sure the fire doesn't reach the city center, which would make this emergency much more serious."
While 1,250 firefighters, police and forest rangers battled the blaze, 2,000 Chilean sailors in combat gear patrolled streets to maintain order and prevent looting.
Shelters were overflowing, and hospitals treated hundreds of people for breathing problems provoked by the smoke. Maria Elizabeth Diaz, eight months pregnant and trying to rest with her two sons in a shelter set up in Valparaiso's Greek School, said she had been hesitant to flee her home in Cerro Las Canas when she first learned that the hilltop above her was on fire.
"I didn't want to move because I was afraid they'd rob me, but I had to flee when I saw the fire was coming down the hill," she said. "I lost everything. Now I've been ordered to rest because I was having contractions. My little one knows that he can't arrive quite yet."
Another evacuee, Erica Gonzalez, 74, said her daughter and some neighbors had to carry her to safety because the fire burned her wheelchair.
"I was left in the street. My house was completely burned, and that of my daughter a block away," she said, visibly upset as she hugged a grandchild.
As fires were contained in some areas, some people managed to return and discover that their homes had been destroyed.
"It's frightening, everything is burned," said Francisca Granados, who had spent the night with friends in the neighboring city of Vina del Mar.
Thick clouds of smoke surrounded the city's prison, where nine pregnant inmates were transferred to a detention facility in the nearby city of Quillota. Another 204 female inmates were being evacuated to a sports arena. More than 2,700 male inmates will remain at the prison for now, prison guard commander Tulio Arce said.