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Chile mourns 123 killed in wildfire inferno, searches for missing

Vehicles and homes burn during a fire in Viña del Mar, Chile, on February 2, 2024 (Javier TORRES)
Vehicles and homes burn during a fire in Viña del Mar, Chile, on February 2, 2024 (Javier TORRES)

Chile began two days of national mourning Monday for at least 123 victims of a raging wildfire, with the search continuing for the missing as survivors pick through the scorched remains of their lives.

The streets were strewn with charred cars, debris and ash after flames tore through crowded hilltop neighborhoods in the coastal region of Valparaiso, in the world's third-deadliest wildfire this century.

"I still have a lump in my throat and, not so much for the material stuff, but I mean, I lost several neighborhood friends nearby, four more up there. That's what hurts the most," said Hugo de Filippi, a 34-year-old car mechanic.

In the resort town of Vina del Mar, one of the hardest hit areas, volunteers brought in water, clothing and food, while using shovels and brooms to help with the clean-up.

"There is no explanation. This is really a disaster. Today we are removing debris... then we will take what is needed to each house," said one volunteer, Camila Perez, 23.

The blaze engulfed homes and cars, their burned-out husks now littering the streets -- as it remained unclear if they had been parked and abandoned, or if they were occupied with residents trying to flee the narrow streets of the hillside communities.

The state forensic agency on Monday reported the toll stood at 123 dead, with only 33 of the victims identified.

Nearly 15,000 homes have been damaged, according to Ministry of Interior undersecretary Manuel Monsalve.

President Gabriel Boric had warned Sunday that the earlier death toll could rise "significantly" and the search continued for victims.

Most of the fatalities have been in Vina del Mar, a popular tourist spot known for its beaches and botanical gardens.

The town's mayor, Macarena Ripamonti, told reporters on Sunday that "190 people are still missing" in the city, where 20,000 people have been affected by the fires.

- 'It took only 10 minutes' -

The fires surged Friday in the region, fueled by winds and amid a brutal heatwave that has seen temperatures of around 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).

Authorities are investigating whether they were started deliberately.

While weather conditions were improving, teams were still fighting some 40 fires around the country.

Abraham Mardones, a 24-year-old welder who fled his burning home in Vina del Mar, told AFP he narrowly escaped the fast-paced inferno.

"We saw the fire on the hill in front of us. We looked out again and the fire was already at the walls of our house. It took only 10 minutes. The entire hill burned," he said.

"The fire consumed everything -- memories, comforts, homes. I was left with nothing but my overalls and a pair of sneakers that were given to me as a gift," Mardones told AFP. "I could only rescue my dog."

Upon his return on Sunday, he said he found several neighbors who had died in the flames.

Friends passed by driving a truck "carrying the burned bodies of their brother, their father, their daughter."

- 'Raining ash' -

According to Interior Minister Carolina Toha, the weekend blazes have been "without a doubt" the deadliest fire event in Chile's history.

"This was an inferno," Rodrigo Pulgar, from the town of El Olivar, told AFP. "I tried to help my neighbor... my house was starting to burn behind us. It was raining ash."

US President Joe Biden said in a statement Monday that Washington "is in contact with our Chilean partners, and the United States is ready to provide necessary assistance to the Chilean people."

During his Sunday address, Pope Francis, a native of neighboring Argentina, called for prayers for the "dead and wounded in the devastating fires in Chile."

The fires are being driven by a summer heatwave and drought affecting the southern part of South America caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon. Scientists warn that a warming planet has increased the risk of natural disasters such as wildfires.

pm-str/nro/des