Chile fire in Valparaiso kills 12 and forces thousands to evacuate

Gideon Long reports from Chile

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More than 10,000 people have been evacuated from Chile's port city of Valparaiso to escape a moving fire that has killed at least 12 residents.

Some 1,200 firefighters are battling the large blaze, which has destroyed hundreds of homes since Saturday.

President Michelle Bachelet put the army in charge of the evacuation after declaring the city, 110km (70 miles) west of Santiago, a disaster zone.

Security forces are on the streets to maintain order and prevent looting.

Earlier, the authorities said 16 residents had died, but it turned out that one family had been counted twice.

One official said it was the "worst catastrophe" he had ever seen.

"We fear that the fire will spread to the centre of the city, which would increase the severity of the emergency," regional governor Ricardo Bravo, a life-long resident of Valparaiso, said.

The old centre is a Unesco World Heritage Site, packed with old buildings that are vulnerable to fire.

Difficult job

Strong Pacific coast winds have pushed the fire deeper into the neighbourhoods of Valparaiso, hampering the battle to contain the blaze.

The city is built on a series of steep hills, separated by narrow winding streets, making the job of firefighters all the more difficult, says the BBC's Gideon Long in Santiago.

Large parts of Valparaiso are without electricity, and residents were said to be suffering from smoke inhalation.

Fire rages in Valparaiso, Chile - 12 April 2014 It was an apocalyptic scene as the flames covered the city in a bright glow
Residents walk carrying their belongings in Valparaiso, April 13, 2014. The blaze forced thousands of residents to evacuate and leave most of their belongings behind
Residents survey the damage after a forest fire burned homes in Valparaiso, April 13, 2014. Some residents returned to discover that their homes had been destroyed
Residents gather in a shelter in Valparaiso, April 13, 2014. Refuges have been set up to house residents who were forced to flee

President Bachelet is in the city to oversee an emergency committee's response.

"The people of Valparaiso have courage, have strength and they aren't alone," she said during a tour of the worst-hit areas.

"In some places the fires have started again so we're working on this and people will continue to be protected," the president added.

Temporary shelters have been set up for residents who were forced to flee.

The Chilean Red Cross has appealed for donations, such as food and other basic supplies, to help those who were left homeless.

"We will send all of this to the people because they lost everything," a Red Cross volunteer told the BBC.

Chile, Valparaiso map

The fire started on Saturday, and most of the damage was done overnight.

'Hell'

Those residents who managed to return to their homes discovered that they had been destroyed.

"It's all burned down. My sister's house also burnt to the ground," Rosa Guzman told the Reuters news agency.

Another resident said the blaze felt as if "hell encircled my family".

"The fire raced down the hills and destroyed everything in its path," Miguel Ramirez told the AFP news agency.

This is the second emergency that President Bachelet has had to face in the first month of her second term in office, after an 8.2 earthquake hit northern Chile on 1 April.

Fires are frequent in central Chile, where summer sends temperatures soaring.

Residents survey the damage in Valparaiso, April 13, 2014. The Chilean Red Cross has appealed for donations to help those who were left homeless
A forest fire burns in Valparaiso city, April 12, 2014. The fire began on Saturday, with most of the damage done overnight

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