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Massive forest fires raging in central Chile have killed more than 100 people

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In South America, wildfires are raging in central Chile. More than 100 people have been killed so far, and hundreds more have lost their homes. Officials believe that some of the fires may have been intentionally set. The fires come as the region is experiencing extreme heat. With us now is journalist John Bartlett, who is in Chile. John, hello.

JOHN BARTLETT: Hi there. Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: Well, you know, it just sounds terrifying. I think you visited some affected areas. Can you just tell us what you're seeing?

BARTLETT: Yeah. So what I saw, obviously, was the aftermath of what happened - these plots of lands on the hillside which are now effectively just connected by the concrete steps that used to run between them. Not much is left, just piles of ash and rubble and certain sort of warped metal sheeting which a lot of people had used to build their own homes. But it was horrific listening to all the testimonies of actually what people saw on Friday and Saturday morning.

MARTIN: In fact, I think you spoke with one woman, Regina Figueroa (ph), who told you that she and her 5-year-old grandson barely escaped the flames. Where did you meet her? And tell us more about her and her family and what happened to her.

BARTLETT: Yeah. We met her on - in a place called Las Ferreras (ph), which was up in the hills just behind Vina del Mar, the sort of quiet, attractive, coastal resort in central Chile.

REGINA FIGUEROA: (Through interpreter) We have faith that we'll recover because we're all united here.

BARTLETT: When we were up there, she said that she got the text alert from the government, which is quite an efficient system here in Chile, about 6 p.m. on Friday, saying that the flames were approaching her house and that she had to evacuate immediately. But as soon as she left the building, she saw that the fire was already at the corner of her street, and the only thing she could do was grab her grandson and run up these steps. And she described how the flames were kind of hitting her back as she was running. It was difficult to listen to, but there's been - there are so many stories like that here in Valparaiso and Vina del Mar.

MARTIN: And we know that many people are still missing. I understand that officials expect the death toll to rise. Do you know at this point what made these fires so deadly?

BARTLETT: I think what made them deadly is a combination of - it's an El Nino year, this Pacific coast of South America weather phenomenon that we have every few years, this sort of cyclic weather phenomenon. That makes the temperatures higher and unpredictable. We've had a heatwave here in Chile. It was the second-hottest January ever in central Chile and Santiago. So that was one of the things which certainly affected it. The other is that this seems to have been - the fires at the moment, we seem to think that they were started intentionally. So that's something to keep an eye on.

MARTIN: So say more about that, if you would. Just how many fires are actively burning, and why do the people think that these were intentionally set? Do we know?

BARTLETT: Yeah. So most of them seem to be under control now, particularly in this area. Obviously, the cleanup operation's going to take far longer. In terms of why they were started, it's very difficult to know. I mean, we have fairly good evidence that there were four specific ignition sites up in the hills just behind Vina del Mar. that's what has been pointed to by everyone from the president of Chile, Gabriel Boric, all the way down to people who worked for the National Forestry Commission. They don't seem to have any doubt at all that these were intentionally started.

What I would say is that does seem to be a sort of spiraling descent into vigilantism. We were out last night, and there were people running around accusing one another of being the ones to start fires. And so that looks like it's something to keep an eye on. But it's a difficult situation. There's a lot of shock and obviously grieving for those that people have lost.

MARTIN: Absolutely. That is John Barlett. He's a journalist based in Chile. John, thank you so much for this reporting.

BARTLETT: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
John Bartlett