SANTIAGO (CHILE), Feb 4 (AP): At least 13 people were reported dead as of Friday night as a result of the more than 150 wildfires burning across Chile that have destroyed homes and thousands of acres of forest while the South American country is in the midst of a scorching heat wave.
Four of the deaths involved two separate vehicles in the Biobío region, around 560 kilometers (348 miles) south of the capital of Santiago.
“In one case they were burned because they were hit by the fire,” Interior Minister Carolina Tohá said. In the other case, she said, the victims died in a crash, “probably trying to escape the fire.”
The fifth victim was a firefighter who was run over by a fire truck while combating a blaze in the area.
Later in the afternoon, a helicopter that was helping combat the flames crashed in the Araucanía region, killing the pilot, a Bolivian national, and a mechanic, who was Chilean.
At nightfall, the national agency responsible for emergencies raised the death toll to 13 without giving details on the latest deaths.
As of midday Friday, 151 wildfires were burning throughout Chile, including 65 declared under control. The fires had blazed through more than 14,000 hectares (34,595 acres).
Most of the wildfires are in Biobío and neighbouring Nuble, where the government has declared states of catastrophe that allows greater coordination with the military and the suspension of certain constitutional rights.
The heat wave hitting Chile is set to continue with high temperatures and strong winds that could make the wildfires more challenging.
President Gabriel Boric suspended his vacation to travel to the affected areas on Friday and said there is “evidence” that some of the wildfires were sparked by unauthorised burnings.
“The full force of the state will be deployed to, first of all, fight the fires and to accompany all the victims,” Boric said.
It remained unclear how many homes and other structures had been burned.
“Families are having a very difficult time,” Ivonne Rivas, the mayor of Tomé in Biobío, told local radio. “It’s hell what they are living through, the fire got away from us.”
The wildfires caused the suspension of a highly anticipated announcement by forensic experts who were expected to give the cause of death of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, winner of a Nobel Prize for literature.
The experts were set to give their view on whether Neruda died of complications from prostate cancer or whether he was poisoned, potentially settling one of the great mysteries of post-coup Chile.
The doctor in charge of delivering the report’s findings was unable to connect to the internet because he is in a region affected by the wildfires, a spokesman for the country’s judiciary said.