Sudden shift in Chilean wildfire kills 6 firefighters, badly burns 2; 1 still missing

Sudden shift in Chilean wildfire kills 6 firefighters, badly burns 2; 1 still missing

05 January 2012

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Chile — SANTIAGO, Chile — Shifting winds caused flames to sweep over a group of firefighters battling wildfires in Chile on Thursday, killing six of them, badly burning two and leaving another missing.

A 10th firefighter listed as missing after his brigade was trapped in the flames was later found unhurt, said Gov. Miguel Mellado of Cautin, a state about 450 miles (730 kilometers) south of the capital, Santiago.

Nearly 50 wildfires have sprung up in southern Chile, destroying hundreds of houses, forcing the evacuations of thousands of people and causing millions of dollars in damage to the forestry and tourism industries that fuel the economy in the country’s Patagonia region.

The wildfires alongside the Cordillera de la Costa are being by fueled by strong winds, unusually high temperatures and dangerously dry conditions.

A sudden shift in the high winds left the group of firefighters overwhelmed by flames.

“The wind trapped them and the flames passed over” the firefighters, Mellado said.

Mellado originally said five firefighters were killed, but President Sebastian Pinera raised the toll to six.

Fires have blackened much of the Torres del Paine park, which attracts 150,000 tourists annually, most during the brief southern summer, and destroyed at least part of a mill run by Chile’s leading timber company.

Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil have answered appeals for help from Pinera, who said Thursday that a number of the blazes appeared to have been set intentionally.

“We have trustworthy information that makes us suspect that behind these fires there has been criminal intent,” Pinera said at a news conference in the presidential palace.

A criminal investigation is being opened under Chile’s severe anti-terrorism law and will be used against anyone found responsible for starting a fire, he said.

Earlier in the week, an elderly man in the Bio Bio region was killed in a fire after refusing orders to evacuate his home, and another resident was reported missing.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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