Days after devastating wildfires ripped through Chile’s Pacific Coast, ravaging entire neighborhoods and trapping people fleeing in cars, officials said on Sunday that at least 99 people had been killed and hundreds remained missing and warned that the number of dead could rise sharply.
“That number is going to go up, we know it’s going to go up significantly,” President Gabriel Boric said on Sunday, describing the fires in the Valparaíso region as the worst disaster in the country since a cataclysmic earthquake in 2010 left more than 400 people dead and displaced 1.5 million.
“We’re standing before a tragedy of immense proportions,” said the president, who visited the fire zone and announced that the nation would observe two days of mourning. He said a top priority was to recover the bodies of victims.
Thousands of homes were destroyed in the flames, which swept through the hilly settlements around the resort town of Viña del Mar starting Friday, propelled by high winds. A regional state of emergency was declared and a nighttime curfew imposed.
The fires erupted as many were on summer vacations in Viña del Mar, a city of roughly 330,000, and swept through the smaller neighboring cities of Quilpué, Limache, and Villa Alemana. In some hillside areas, many older residents were not able to escape.
Omar Castro Vázquez, whose home was destroyed in the settlement of El Olivar, said an older neighbor had died in the fire.
“It was more like a nuclear bomb than a fire,” said Mr. Castro Vázquez, 72. “There’s nothing left.”
The destruction in the Valparaíso region came as dozens of fires were burning across central and southern Chile, amid what officials have said are higher-than-normal temperatures for this time of year.
Several other countries in South America have also struggled to contain wildfires. Colombia has seen dozens of fires erupt in recent weeks, including around the capital of Bogotá, as the country has experienced a spell of dry weather. Firefighters have also been battling blazes in Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina.
The cyclical climate phenomenon known as El Niño has exacerbated droughts and high temperatures through parts of the continent, creating conditions that experts say are ripe for forest fires.
Valparaiso’s fires sped toward the coast as winds rose on Friday.
Several fires, which also threatened the port city of Valparaíso, burned through Friday night. Authorities only began to grasp the extent of the damage starting Saturday.
Chile’s interior minister, Carolina Tohá, said on Sunday that the authorities hoped that improved conditions — lower temperatures, higher humidity and less wind — would help firefighters to quell hot spots and rescue workers to reach charred areas to remove bodies.
At dawn on Sunday, bands of smoke clung to the hillsides above Viña del Mar. Along a highway to the coast, banks of earth and bridges were burned and tree stumps smoldered on the hillsides. The incinerated husks of cars littered the roads.
Early signs point to flawed evacuation orders, which some residents said may have contributed to the casualty count.
Photographs posted on the social media platform X showed long lines of burned cars that appeared to have been engulfed in flames as people attempted to leave Viña del Mar, drawing comparisons to the botched evacuation during last year’s fire in Lahaina in Maui, Hawaii.
Chile’s national disaster response service, Senapred, said alerts went out starting on Friday, and gave people evacuation instructions but did not order them to leave.
Regina Figueroa, 53, a resident of the Villa Independencia settlement outside Viña del Mar, said she received a cellphone alert with evacuation instructions on Friday when the fire was already closing in on her home.
“I got the alert,’’ she said, “and ran out into the street. When I got onto the road, the flames were already at the corner.”
Ms. Figueroa picked up her 5-year-old grandson, she said. The flames were so close, she could feel the heat as she ran. She stopped and dunked the boy, who was crying, in a swimming pool to cool him off, she said, then continued racing up a staircase to escape.
“The sky was black,’’ she said. “You couldn’t see anything. Everyone was screaming, shouting instructions, wailing into the wind.”
She reached the top of the staircase and stopped to catch her breath, sobbing.
“I couldn’t believe we were alive. But we were the lucky ones,” she said. “I lost my mother-in-law, my sister-in law. They died, calcified in the street because they couldn’t escape the flames.”
Several blocks of Villa Independencia were decimated by fire.
In El Olivar, Mr. Castro Vázquez said residents had fled to a local square when the cellphone alert came.
Black smoke plumed over a hill from a botanical gardens on the other side of the hill, he said, and within minutes their community was engulfed in tall orange flames.
Another resident, Andrés Calderón, 40, said several people in the neighborhood hadn’t wanted to leave their homes, fearing that thieves would burglarize them.
When he received the alert, Mr. Calderón said he jumped into his car and drove through smoke so thick he said he had to turn on his headlights.
“It was like entering hell,” Mr. Calderón said. “I couldn’t see, the wind was blowing the car almost off the road. I just kept driving.”
On Sunday, the area, which was a mix of decades-old public housing and improvised dwellings, had been reduced to rubble. The sides of road were covered in corrugated metal sheets and debris pushed into piles, everything blackened and smelling of smoke.
Mr. Castro Vázquez, a retired dockworker, said he had lost all of his clothes, possessions, documents and a chunk of his pension, which he had withdrawn and kept in cash.
Residents helped one another remove rubble and burned appliances from the shells of homes.
“I haven’t cried, I haven’t come to terms with it. I’m just focused on cleaning my house and my neighbor’s,” Mr. Castro Vázquez said. “We’re broken.”
In the hills around Viña del Mar, police and medical examiners were starting to arrive on Sunday afternoon. Police officers picked through the rubble, asking locals if they had seen bodies.
Some survivors said they saw people swallowed by flames two stories high. Others described seeing bodies littering staircases.
Many residents in the settlements said they had been stranded without help or even information since their cellphones had run out of batteries and the power had gone out. They said that they had been largely left on their own to respond to the disaster. Shelters set up for evacuees were too far away to be useful, many said.
In the Las Praderas district, some survivors huddled in the shade while others raked over the twisted remains of their homes. A taxi distributed bottled water and empanadas as a first-year medical student treated minor injuries.
The mayor of Viña del Mar, Macarena Ripamonti, said at a news conference on Sunday morning that as of Saturday night, 372 people in the municipality were missing. She said officials would ensure that the bodies of those who died in the fires were removed as quickly as possible.
“They are our neighbors, they’re our family, they are our friends, they are people from Viña del Mar. That moves the population,” she said. “People are living through the worst situation.”
Natalie Alcoba contributed reporting from Buenos Aires.