Valparaiso has been ravaged by a forest fire that has taken the lives of at least four people and consumed 500 homes, officials announced Sunday. Occupants in the region have been evacuated, topping numbers in the thousands, which also includes about 200 female inmates at a nearby prison.
The difficulty in containing and combating the fire stems from the topography of the land upon which the city sits. Most of Valparaiso is spread across dozens of steep hills densely covered with houses.
The fire started on Saturday afternoon near the edge of the city and quickly spread with the help of strong winds. Fresh ash fell through the city early Sunday, causing respiratory issues for both the elderly and children.
"This is the worst disaster I have seen. Now we fear that the fire will spread to the center of the city, which would increase the severity of the emergency," said regional governor Ricardo Bravo.
President Michelle Bachelet declared Valparaiso a catastrophe zone in order to mobilize the armed forces to maintain order and evacuate the 250,000 population to safety. So far, about 5,000 residents have been evacuated, but more are expected as the fire moves towards the center of city.
A prison, which sits on the outskirts of city limits, was heavily surrounded by clouds of smoke, putting prison officials and inmates at risk. Nine pregnant inmates were transferred to a detention facility in Quillota, not far from Valparaiso, while 204 female inmates were moved to a sports arena. The remaining 2,700 male inmates are still at the prison, according to prison guard commander Tulio Arce.
Valparaiso Mayor Jorge Castro said "at least 500 homes have been destroyed by the fire." Shelters, perhaps built using log home kits, have been made available for residents who have been forced to flee have been set up to accommodate the uprooted. His fears are for the availability of power, because the city was experiencing cuts to the electricity supply.
As police and forest rangers join forces with firefighters to battle the blaze, Chilean marines have taken to the streets to instill order and prevent looting.
Located about 75 miles northwest of the Chilean capital, Santiago, Valparaiso is home to the national legislature.