PUMANQUE, Chile (AP) — Lambs suffered broken legs trying to escape the blaze that tore across Tarcila Becerra’s land. Today there’s nothing on the blackened soil left for the few chickens that survived to graze on, and horses whinny in a makeshift stable a few blocks from her ravaged home.
“We tried to defend our home, but the flames were too big and we had to run out,” Becerra said later, standing next to a charred brick wall that’s just about all that remains of the house.
She and her brothers work as fruit packers. But she fears that after missing a week of work to try to save their home and livestock, they may have lost their jobs too.
Residents in the town of Pumanque, located in the hard-hit south-central region of O’Higgins, have lost most of their belongings and their very livelihood to some of the worst wildfires ever seen in Chile.
The fast-spreading blazes of recent weeks have destroyed about 300,000 acres (more than 130,000 hectares) of forest; many fires are still burning, and more are expected to flare up.
Chile’s Public Works Ministry said Monday that heavy machinery will be sent to the area to bury the hundreds of animals that died in the wave of fires, which have been stoked by a prolonged drought and temperatures topping 100 Fahrenheit (40 Celsius).
In Pumanque, some 130 miles (215 kilometers) south of the capital, Santiago, folks have been battling the fires themselves, without any protective gear and often using just branches or bottles of water. The few helicopters working in the area have been dropping water on the flames, and firefighters have dug ditches to stop their spread.
But sometimes those efforts are undone as winds or smoldering ash spread the fires anew.
Their ferocity prompted President Michelle Bachelet to ask Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Peru and Spain for help. The U.S. is also sending a group of experts and funds to replace equipment at Chile’s national forestry agency.
“Chile is living the greatest forest disaster in our history,” Bachelet said. “But we have the courage and the solidarity to face it.”
As the flames destroyed homes, pasture and livestock in O’Higgins, some ranchers set their animals free to flee.
The government has declared a state of emergency in the area. But some say the government has been slow to react make the declaration, which frees up resources to be distributed to victims.
Smoke has shrouded various cities including Santiago, where the nearby Andes mountain range remains hidden from view. Ash has blanketed homes and vehicles.
The forestry agency, CONAF, said Monday there were still 122 wildfires burning across the country. The agency says there have been 2,808 fires since July that burned a total of about 550,000 acres (221,000 hectares), a large spike over previous years.
More blazes are expected with forecasts of high temperatures, strong winds and low humidity for the coming days.
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