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Chile wildfire survivors return to horrifying aftermath

Survivors walk past burned out vehicles after a wildfire ravaged Quilpue, in Chile's Vina del Mar region
Survivors walk past burned out vehicles after a wildfire ravaged Quilpue, in Chile's Vina del Mar region - Copyright AFP RODRIGO ARANGUA
Survivors walk past burned out vehicles after a wildfire ravaged Quilpue, in Chile's Vina del Mar region - Copyright AFP RODRIGO ARANGUA

Within minutes his world erupted in a hellish fire: Abraham Mardones, with just the clothes on his back, miraculously managed to escape the epicenter of the deadliest wildfires in Chile’s recent history.

Still shaken by the charred bodies he saw inside the crumbling houses in his Villa Independencia neighborhood of Vina del Mar, the 24-year-old welder and university student has been left devastated.

“My neighbors were burned” to death, he said Sunday, recalling how he covered one of their corpses.

“The fire consumed everything — memories, comforts, homes. I was left with nothing but my overalls and a pair of sneakers that were given to me as a gift,” Mardones told AFP. “I could only rescue my dog.”

Mardones lived with several relatives in a row of four houses. While their lives were saved, they lost everything else.

As evening fell Friday, wind-whipped flames raced over the crowded hills of the coastal city of Vina del Mar and other areas of the Valparaiso region.

Mardones and other residents were buffeted by gusts of incandescent air.

To date there have been 112 confirmed deaths, but the government expects the toll to swell in the South American country’s worst tragedy since a 2010 earthquake and tsunami.

In Villa Independencia alone, at least 19 people perished, authorities said, and between 3,000 and 6,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. The smell of ash and burned plastic lingered.


– Sudden courage –

Mardones, having seen an adjacent hillside burn, had barely begun to throw water on the walls of his home when the heat became unbearable. He, his uncle and dog fled just before flames torched the place.

“We saw the fire on the hill in front,” he said. “We looked out again and the fire was already on our walls. It took only 10 minutes. The entire hill burned.”

On Saturday he returned — and then came the horror he was thoroughly unprepared for. 

“I didn’t have the courage, but at least I had enough to find my charred neighbor and cover her up” with a tarp — in part to keep dogs away from her, he said.

“I have neighbors who were burned to death,” he said, surveying a narrow street littered with debris and shells of cars under blankets of ash.

Friends had passed by driving a truck “carrying the burned bodies of their brother, their father, their daughter,” he said.

Nearby, Eduardo Castillo, a 60-year-old machinery operator, said he, his two children and five dogs fled “an immense bonfire” that consumed their home.

“There was nothing we could do,” he told AFP.

Residents of Villa Independencia were still in the streets Sunday, removing debris where they could.

“I lost my welding machine, I lost my grinder, I have nothing,” Mardones said. “But my hands are good, thank God.”

Written By

With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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