At Least 46 Reported Dead in Chile as Forest Fires Move into Densely Populated Central Areas

People fight the fire in the Las Palmas area during the forest fires affecting Vina del Mar, Valparaiso region, Chile, 03 February 2024. (EPA)
People fight the fire in the Las Palmas area during the forest fires affecting Vina del Mar, Valparaiso region, Chile, 03 February 2024. (EPA)
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At Least 46 Reported Dead in Chile as Forest Fires Move into Densely Populated Central Areas

People fight the fire in the Las Palmas area during the forest fires affecting Vina del Mar, Valparaiso region, Chile, 03 February 2024. (EPA)
People fight the fire in the Las Palmas area during the forest fires affecting Vina del Mar, Valparaiso region, Chile, 03 February 2024. (EPA)

Intense forest fires burning around a densely populated area of central Chile have caused at least 46 deaths, Chile's president said Saturday evening, and officials said at least 1,100 homes had been destroyed.

In a nationally televised address, President Gabriel Boric warned that the death toll could worsen as four large fires burn in the region of Valparaiso, where firefighters have struggled to reach the most threatened neighborhoods.

Boric urged Chileans to cooperate with rescue workers.

“If you are told to evacuate don't hesitate to do it,” he said. “The fires are advancing fast and climatic conditions have made them difficult to control. There are high temperatures, strong winds and low humidity.”

Interior Minister Carolina Tohá said earlier Saturday that 92 forest fires were burning in the center and south of the country, where temperatures have been unusually high this week.

The deadliest of the fires were in the Valparaíso region, where authorities urged thousands of people to evacuate their homes.

Meanwhile, residents in areas farther away from the fires were told to stay at home so that fire engines, ambulances and other emergency vehicles can get about on the roads with greater ease.

Tohá said two fires near the towns of Quilpué and Villa Alemana had burned through at least 8,000 hectares (19,770 acres) since Friday. One of the fires was threatening the coastal resort town of Viña del Mar, where some neighborhoods had already been hit hard.

In Villa Independencia, a hillside neighborhood on the eastern edge of the town, several blocks of homes and businesses were destroyed. Burned cars with broken windows lined the streets, which were covered in ash.

“I've been here 32 years, and never imagined this would happen,” said Rolando Fernández, one of the residents who lost his home.

He said he first saw the fire burning on a nearby hill Friday afternoon and within 15 minutes the area was engulfed in flames and smoke, forcing everyone to run for their lives.

“I've worked my whole life, and now I'm left with nothing,” Fernández said.

Three shelters were set up in the Valparaíso region, and 19 helicopters and more than 450 firefighters were brought into the area to help battle the blazes, Tohá said.

The fires were burning on mountains that are hard to reach, such as neighborhoods built precariously on the edge of Viña del Mar.

Officials reported power blackouts as a result of the fire, and Tohá said that in the Valparaíso region, four hospitals and three nursing homes for the elderly had to be evacuated. The fire also destroyed two bus terminals, the interior minister said.

The El Niño weather pattern has caused droughts and hotter-than-usual temperatures along the west of South America this year, increasing the risk of forest fires. In January, more than 17,000 hectares (42,000 acres) of forests were destroyed in Colombia by fires that followed several weeks of dry weather.



US Renews Warning It’s Obligated to Defend the Philippines after Its New Clash with China at Sea

A dilapidated but still active Philippine Navy ship BRP Sierra Madre sits at the Second Thomas Shoal, locally known as Ayungin Shoal, at the disputed South China Sea on Aug. 22, 2023. (AP)
A dilapidated but still active Philippine Navy ship BRP Sierra Madre sits at the Second Thomas Shoal, locally known as Ayungin Shoal, at the disputed South China Sea on Aug. 22, 2023. (AP)
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US Renews Warning It’s Obligated to Defend the Philippines after Its New Clash with China at Sea

A dilapidated but still active Philippine Navy ship BRP Sierra Madre sits at the Second Thomas Shoal, locally known as Ayungin Shoal, at the disputed South China Sea on Aug. 22, 2023. (AP)
A dilapidated but still active Philippine Navy ship BRP Sierra Madre sits at the Second Thomas Shoal, locally known as Ayungin Shoal, at the disputed South China Sea on Aug. 22, 2023. (AP)

The United States renewed a warning Tuesday that it’s obligated to defend its close treaty ally a day after Filipino navy personnel were injured and their supply boats damaged in one of the most serious confrontations between the Philippines and China in a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, officials said.

China and the Philippines blamed each other for instigating Monday’s hostilities in the Second Thomas Shoal, which has been occupied by a small Filipino navy contingent aboard a grounded warship that's been closely watched by Chinese coast guard, navy and suspected militia ships in a yearslong territorial standoff. There is fear the disputes, long regarded as an Asian flashpoint, could escalate and pit the United States and China in a larger conflict.

US Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell discussed China's actions with Philippine counterpart, Maria Theresa Lazaro, in a telephone call. Both agreed that China’s “dangerous actions threatened regional peace and stability,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said.

Campbell reaffirmed that the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which obligates Washington and Manila to help defend the other in major conflicts, “extends to armed attacks on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft – including those of its coast guard – anywhere in the South China Sea,” according to Miller.

A Philippine government task force overseeing the territorial disputes condemned what it said were “dangerous maneuvers, including ramming and towing,” which disrupted a routine effort to transport food, water and other supplies to the Filipinos manning the territorial outpost aboard the BRP Sierra Madre at the shoal.

“Despite the illegal, aggressive, and reckless actions by the Chinese maritime forces, our personnel showed restraint and professionalism, refrained from escalating the tension, and carried on with their mission,” the Philippine task force said without elaborating. “Their actions put at risk the lives of our personnel and damaged our boats in blatant violation of international law.”

The Chinese coast guard said the Philippines “is entirely responsible for this.” It said a Philippine vessel “ignored China’s repeated solemn warnings ... and dangerously approached a Chinese vessel in normal navigation in an unprofessional manner, resulting in a collision."

Two speedboats — attempting to deliver construction materials and other supplies to a military vessel stationed at the shoal — accompanied the supply ship, according to China’s Foreign Ministry, which described its coast guard’s maneuver as “professional, restrained, reasonable and lawful."

Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. said Monday night that his country’s armed forces would resist “China’s dangerous and reckless behavior,” which “contravenes their statements of good faith and decency."

“We will exert our utmost in order to fulfill our sworn mandate to protect our territorial integrity, sovereignty, and sovereign rights,” Teodoro said. “It should now be clear to the international community that China’s actions are the true obstacles to peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

Several incidents have happened in recent months near the shoal which lies less than 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from the nearest Philippines coast and where it maintains the Sierra Madre, which had become encrusted with rust since it was deliberately grounded in 1999 but remains an actively commissioned military vessel, meaning an attack on it could be considered by the Philippines as an act of war.

China has increasingly become assertive in pressing its claim to virtually the entire South China Sea, which has led to a rising number of direct conflicts with other countries in the region, most notably the Philippines and Vietnam.

A new law by China, which took effect Saturday, authorizes its coast guard to seize foreign ships “that illegally enter China’s territorial waters” and to detain foreign crews for up to 60 days. The law renewed a reference to 2021 legislation that says China’s coast guard can fire upon foreign ships if necessary.

At least three coastal governments with claims to the waters — the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan — have said they would not recognize the law. Malaysia and Brunei are also involved in the long-seething territorial disputes, which are regarded as a delicate fault line in the longstanding US-China rivalry in the region.