14 Apr 2014

Huge fire in historic Chile city

7:29 am on 14 April 2014

At least 16 people have died and more than 10,000 have been evacuated after a huge fire tore through Chile's historic port city of Valparaiso.

The blaze, which started in nearby woods on Saturday, gutted 500 homes as a wall of flames advanced on the city of 270,000, famed for its UNESCO-listed centre.

President Michelle Bachelet declared a state of emergency and has visited the worst-hit areas. "It is a terrible tragedy, without doubt the worst fire in the history of Valparaiso," she said.

The blaze destroyed hundreds of homes.

The blaze destroyed hundreds of homes. Photo: AFP

The cause of the inferno remains under investigation. President Bachelet has declared the area a disaster zone, allowing the armed forces to assist in relief efforts.

As dawn broke, firefighters were still working to battle the flames that had so far ravaged more than 800 hectares. Firefighters warned that extinguishing the flames was complicated by the area's hilly geography, narrow streets and persistent strong winds.

Residents who had been moved out returned to discover their homes reduced to smouldering ruins.

Mother-of-four Monica Vergara said she had lost everything but relieved her children were safe. "I heard a huge explosion and it felt like our house lifted up," she told AFP.

The overnight death toll increased from four to 16 early on Sunday as rescuers began discovering bodies in destroyed dwellings. Some 500 people were being treated for injuries, mostly minor but some serious.

Those caught in the path of the blaze after it erupted on Saturday afternoon reported a fast-moving inferno that roared toward town, fanned by winds and searing temperatures.

Overnight, many residents watched helpless, from distant vantage points, as the hills burned bright red.