Chile declares disaster as fire storms historic port city

Chile declares disaster as fire storms historic port city

VALPARAïSO, Chile - Chile on Sunday mobilized its military to help evacuate thousands of people in its port city of Valparaiso threatened by a huge, out-of-control forest fire that has already destroyed 500 homes and was advancing on others.

President Michelle Bachelet declared the massive blaze threatening the city - whose historic centre is a protected UNESCO heritage site - a disaster zone, permitting the armed forces to step in.

"This is the worst catastrophe Valparaiso has ever seen," the regional government administrator, Ricardo Bravo, told local reporters.

There was no official confirmation of fatalities, but local media said two people died, believed to be an elderly couple. One person was listed as injured.

More than 3,000 people have so far been evacuated from their homes on the heights above Valparaiso, a city of 270,000 people which lies on the Pacific coast 110 kilometers (70 miles) northwest of the capital Santiago.

The massive tongues of flame were advancing down the slopes of the city towards its port and heritage-listed centre, driven by strong winds.

Many residents overnight watched, helpless, from distant vantage points as the hills burned bright red. Thick smoke clouded the sky.

Hundreds of firemen, including ones dispatched from the capital, were hopelessly outmatched in their battle to limit the spreading disaster. They were forced to retreat time and again as flames reduced homes to cinders, a wall of red towering above them.

The city is spread out over more than 40 hills, hindering emergency vehicle traffic.

"My brother's house was entirely burnt. We had only finished it two weeks ago. We tried to save something but it was truly an inferno," one resident, Cristobal Perez, told the Chilevision television network.

"I started to become overcome by the smoke along with my two dogs. It was terrible - impossible to breathe," another resident told the channel.

The vast blaze has caused cuts to power and drinking water in many areas of Valparaiso.

The cause of the fire, which began in woodland near the city late Saturday, was being investigated.

Authorities have set up nearly a dozen shelters to take in those evacuated. Pets were not being allowed in the shelters and animal welfare organisations said some owners were therefore choosing to sleep in the street with their dogs or cats.

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