Fires were thought to be contained 24 hours after they started on Saturday regained strength with Sunday afternoon’s winds and raged out of control, threatening more neighbourhoods.
With no water or fire hydrants to use, routes to the fires blocked by narrow streets congested with abandoned vehicles and countless embers being stoked, fire crews could do little but watch some areas burn.
At least twenty helicopters and planes were deployed to drop water on hotspots.
The blaze began in a forested ravine next to ramshackle housing on one of Valparaiso’s 42 hilltops and spread quickly. Hot ash rained down over wooden houses and narrow streets.
Electricity failed as the fire grew, turning the night sky orange and reducing neighbourhoods on six hilltops to ashes.
Schools were closed Monday in the city, since some were damaged and others were overflowing with evacuees.
President Michelle Bachelet toured the shelters and cancelled this week’s trip to Argentina and Uruguay, ordering her ministers to meet with her Monday morning to explain their responses. “It’s a tremendous tragedy. This could be the worst fire in the city’s history,” she said.
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 colourful homes, built on slopes so steep that many people commute using staircases and cable cars.