Chile has been rocked by earthquakes lately, and now a fire raging in the colorful port city of Valparaiso has killed at least 16 people and destroyed 500 homes, President Michelle Bachelet said today. More than 10,000 people have been evacuated, including more than 200 female inmates at a prison. "It's a tremendous tragedy, perhaps the worst fire" in the city's history, said Bachelet, who warned that the toll of death and damage would rise. The fire began yesterday afternoon in a forested area above ramshackle housing on one of the city's many hilltops, and spread quickly as high winds rained hot ash over wooden houses and narrow streets in the city of 250,000. Electricity failed as the fire spread, and towering, sparking flames turned the night sky orange over the darkened remains of entire neighborhoods.
Bachelet declared the entire city a catastrophe zone, putting Chile's military in charge of maintaining order. While 1,250 firefighters, police and forest rangers battled the blaze, 2,000 Chilean sailors in combat gear patrolled streets to maintain order and prevent looting. Shelters were overflowing, and hospitals treated hundreds of people for breathing problems provoked by the smoke. Valparaiso, which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2003, is known for colorful neighborhoods hugging hills so steep that people have to use staircases rather than streets. About 75 miles northwest of the capital, Santiago, it has a vibrant port and is home to Chile's national legislature. But many homes in poorer areas above the city center have been built without water supplies or access points that would enable firefighters to intervene, so much of today's fight is happening from the air. (More Chile stories.)