© Reuters. Smoke fills the air following the spread of wildfires affecting many parts of the Valparaiso region, in Vina del Mar, Chile February 3, 2024. REUTERS/Sofia Yanjari
(Reuters) -Fires devastating parts of central Chile have killed at least 64 people and the country faces a “tragedy of very great magnitude,” President Gabriel Boric said on Sunday, as he warned that the death toll likely will surge in coming days.
Wildfires that began several days ago are menacing the outer edges of Viña del Mar and Valparaíso, two coastal cities popular with tourists. The urban sprawl of those cities accounts for more than a million residents west of the capital Santiago.
Chilean authorities have introduced a 9 p.m. curfew in the hardest-hit areas and sent in the military to help firefighters stem the spread of fires, while helicopters dumped water to try to douse the flames from the air.
Boric, announcing two days of national mourning starting on Monday, said Chile should prepare itself for more bad news. The death toll rose from 51 on Saturday.
“We know that figure is going to grow, it’s going to grow significantly,” Boric said in a televised speech to the nation, adding, “We are facing a tragedy of very great magnitude.”
“It is Chile as a whole that suffers and mourns our dead,” Boric said.
Hundreds of people also have been reported missing, authorities said. More than 1,000 homes have been damaged. Officials on Saturday said more than 90 fires were raging across Chile.
Although wildfires are not uncommon during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, the lethality of these blazes stands out, making them the country’s worst national disaster since the 2010 earthquake in which about 500 people died.
Last year, on the back of a record heat wave, some 27 people died and more than 400,000 hectares (990,000 acres) of land were affected.
Boric has sought to channel funds to the hardest-hit areas, many of which are popular with tourists.
“We are together, all of us, fighting the emergency. The priority is to save lives,” Boric said.