SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Firefighters battled dozens of raging wildfires in Chile, seeking to gain control of one of the country’s worst natural disasters in years as the death toll rose to at least 24 with nearly 1,000 more injured.
International help began arriving on Sunday from a handful of countries that have pledged resources, including planes and expert firefighting teams, as the most intense wildfires torched forests and farmland clustered around three regions near the middle of the South American country’s long Pacific coastline.
President Gabriel Boric issued emergency declarations for the largely rural southern regions of Biobio, Nuble and Araucania in an effort to speed relief.
On Sunday, speaking from the city of Puren in Araucania, Boric stressed that his government would provide all necessary resources, while he also sought to inspire solidarity in the face of the deadly wildfires.
“I’ve seen the resiliency of our people, and it’s exactly that spirit that has to guide us during this difficult time,” he said. “All together, we’ll come out of this ahead.”
The fires have consumed some 270,000 hectares, officials said on Sunday, or an area roughly the size of the U.S. state of Rhode Island.
A searing heat wave in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer has complicated efforts to extinguish the flames, as temperatures in some of the most affected areas have exceeded 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 Celsius).
Pockets of intense fire could be seen leaping out from the forested hills off the coast near the town of Dichato just outside the city of Concepcion in the Biobio region on Saturday night, as light from the flames illuminated boats in the small harbor.
Thirteen of the dead — more than half of the fires’ reported victims — come from Biobio, which, like Nuble and Araucania, is home to extensive forests as well as farms that grow grapes and other fruit for export.
In some places, the fires prompted a mad dash for safety for those lucky enough to have options ahead of the approaching flames.
“Get into the swimming pool! Get into the swimming pool, up to your neck,” a woman recounted shouting to her parents at the family’s home near the town of Santa Juana, in hard-hit Biobio, but declining to give her name.
She described a hurried effort to find a safe place to hunker down that included leaving behind vehicles, as well as imploring neighbors to join them in the pool.
Some 260 fires are active across the parched region, interior ministry officials said on Sunday, with 28 of them considered especially dangerous.
Nearly 1,500 people have fled to area shelters. At least 26 of the 970 injured are listed in grave condition at local hospitals.
Chilean officials have sought international assistance to battle the fires, with new ones sparking to life each day.
Authorities said they were facilitating the arrival of assistance from Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Portugal and Venezuela.
Some foreign help was already on the ground.
A Spanish military unit was to make it, officials said on Sunday, adding that a so-called Ten Tanker plane featuring a 36,000-liter firefighting capacity should arrive on Monday.
Meanwhile, a specialized team of personnel and trucks from Argentina also arrived on Sunday, as did two military planes and around 300 volunteers from Mexico, according to Chile’s foreign ministry.