SANTIAGO — Dozens of wildfires blazing though Chile caused the government to extend an emergency order to another region on Saturday, as a scorching summer heat wave complicates efforts to control fires that have claimed at least 22 lives so far.
The latest emergency order declared by the interior ministry now covers the southern region of La Araucania, next to the previously declared Biobio and Nuble regions, located near the middle of the South American country’s long Pacific coastline.
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“Weather conditions have made it very difficult to put out (the fires) that are spreading and the emergency is getting worse,” Interior Minister Carolina Toha told reporters on Saturday at a news conference in the capital Santiago.
“We need to reverse that curve,” she added, noting that since Friday another 76 fires had ignited.
The sparsely populated three regions covered by the emergency orders are home to many farms, including where grapes, apples and berries are grown for export, plus extensive tracts of forest land.
On Friday, an emergency-support helicopter in La Araucania crashed, killing its pilot and a mechanic, according to officials.
Authorities reported that 11 of the victims, or half of the casualties reported so far, died in the town of Santa Juana in Biobio, located some 310 miles (500 km) south of Santiago.
Since late last week, helicopters have dropped fire retardant over raging fires as billowing clouds of smoke obstruct roadways. Firefighters and local residents alike are struggling to contain the flames against the backdrop of a hazy orange-tinted sky.
The orders allow for the deployment of soldiers and additional resources to deal with the natural disaster.
Some 40,000 hectares (99,000 acres) have been burnt by the fires, according to official data released late on Friday, an area larger than the U.S. city of Philadelphia.
National forestry agency CONAF reported on Saturday that 80 of 231 total wildfires are being actively battled, while 151 of them are under control.
On Friday, President Gabriel Boric cut short his summer vacation and traveled to Nuble and Biobio, pledging to make sure the affected areas receive all necessary support.
Boric also pointed to “signs” that some fires may have been started intentionally, but did not provide any additional details. (Reporting by Fabian Cambero and Natalia A. Ramos Miranda; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Sandra Maler)