By Alexander Villegas and Jorge Vega
VINA DEL MAR, Chile (Reuters) -Helicopters dumped tons of water on wildfires raging on across central Chile on Monday, as emergency crews told Reuters they were still finding bodies buried in the wreckage three days after the blazes took hold.
The official death count from Chile’s worst natural disaster in years stood at 112 as of Sunday night and was expected to climb as residents, firefighters and military raced to clear rubble.
Forest fires gathered momentum on Friday and spread to residential areas in the coastal cities of Valparaiso and Vina Del Mar, sending out sparks and fireballs that consumed houses within minutes.
“It’s like a war zone, as if a bomb went off,” said Jacqueline Atenas, 63, who fled her home in nearby Villa Independencia on Friday and returned to the wreckage on Monday carrying a small pink backpack, the only thing she had been able to save.
“It burned like someone was throwing gasoline on the houses. I don’t understand what happened… There was a lot of wind, a lot of wind and big balls of fire that would fly by.”
Down the street, Luis Parra said he was barely able to escape with his wife and grandchildren. By the time he saw sparks reaching his house, the power had gone out and they couldn’t open their gate to escape by car.
They managed to jump in a friend’s car and get away. But his sister and his blind father died. Their bodies were found a block from their home. “We never thought this could happen,” Parra said.
‘SO MANY DEAD’
Other residents of Villa Independencia, a working-class neighborhood of Vina del Mar, described high winds and a fast-moving inferno.
Ingrid Crespo, 59, said she first saw the fire far in the distance on Friday then watched it jump from hill to hill.
“The sparks would leap and the wind was blowing like it was a hurricane,” Crespo said. She started pouring water on her roof when she saw sparks flying in, but was too late to save her home.
She escaped in sandals with nothing but the clothes on her back. Many of her neighbors were killed. Her cat and dog died in the fire.
“When my son came on Sunday there were dead bodies,” Crespo said. “There are so many dead.”
Chile began an official two-day mourning period on Monday. Hundreds of people are still missing and some 14,000 homes have been damaged, officials say.
Drone footage filmed by Reuters in the Vina del Mar area showed whole neighborhoods scorched, with residents rummaging through husks of burnt-out houses where corrugated iron roofs have collapsed. On the streets, singed cars littered the roads.
‘LIKE BEING IN HELL’
On Sunday night, Deputy Interior Minister Manuel Monsalve said there were still 165 active fires, up from 154 on Saturday. A curfew has been imposed in the hardest-hit regions and the military has been sent in to help firefighters stop the spread.
Monsalve said slightly lower temperatures and cloud cover could help authorities put out the fires in coming days.
“We’re going to keep having high temperatures, but not extreme ones,” Monsalve said at a press conference.
Chile’s investigative police force (PDI) has said it was investigating areas where fires might have been started intentionally.
Chile, Argentina and other parts of South America’s southern cone have been facing a severe heat wave, something experts say will become more common during the southern hemisphere summer months due to climate change.
Extreme weather in Chile has also been exacerbated by the El Nino weather phenomenon, which warms the Pacific Ocean.
Jesica Barrios, who lost her home in Vina del Mar, told Reuters over the weekend that the fire had arrived “from one moment to the next”.
“The fire reached the botanical park and then in ten minutes it was already on us,” she said. “There was smoke, the sky turned black, everything was dark. The wind felt like a hurricane. It was like being in hell.”
(Reporting by Alexander Villegas and Jorge Vega; Editing by Adam Jourdan, Sharon Singleton and Andrew Heavens)
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