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For Second Night, Valparaiso Fire Spreads Misery In Chile

At least 12 people are dead and more than 2,000 homes have been destroyed by a large fire that wreaked havoc over the weekend in Valparaiso, Chile. Some 10,000 people have been forced to evacuate parts of the port city.

Government spokesman Álvaro Elizalde says those figures are likely to go up as the fire continues to burn.

The fire has been driven by strong winds, and efforts to fight the flames also have been complicated by the area's steep terrain and lack of essential infrastructure, as NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports for our Newscast unit. She adds:

"This is a city built on steep hillsides — the houses are made of wood, the streets are narrow. There are no fire hydrants, and entire communities lack water connections.

"To contain the blaze, some 20 helicopters have been dumping water on the fires. But in some areas, fire crews have been able to do little other than watch buildings burn and hope the flames don't spread farther.

"The blaze began on Saturday in a forested ravine and has spread quickly — destroying whole areas and pushed on by hot winds. Schools in the city are closed today as many are overflowing with evacuees.

"President Michelle Bachelet is calling this a tremendous tragedy and possibly the worst fire in the city's history."

As Lourdes notes, Valparaiso is a city known for its history and beauty. It's often called Chile's cultural capital, or simply a large college town. It's the third-largest city in Chile. The Associated Press has this description:

"Valparaiso is a picturesque oceanside city of 250,000 people surrounded by hills that form a natural amphitheatre. The compact downtown includes Chile's congress and its second-largest port. But most of the people live in the hills, and the city owes its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site to their colorful homes, built on slopes so steep that many people commute using staircases and cable cars."

The Santiago Times says volunteers and work crews are bringing food and water to the fire's victims, carrying items in trucks and on foot. In areas where the fire has already passed, residents are returning to sift through ashes and charred houses for their belongings. They're also on the lookout for friends and loved ones, the newspaper says.

The huge fire created otherworldly scenes over the weekend, the newspaper says:

"Thousands were without power Saturday night, with the flames the only source of light. Accompanying this near-darkness were regular blasts throughout the night as gas canisters used for cooking in most homes were consumed by the blaze. The fire also affected water supply, leading to shortages across the city."

On Sunday, Valparaiso's mayor acknowledged essential problems in how the city has been built over the years.

"We are too vulnerable as a city. We have been the builders and architects of our own danger," Mayor Jorge Castro told Chile's 24Horas TV, according to the AP.

On Monday morning, the city issued urgent calls for volunteers to help its residents cope with the fire and its aftermath.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.