Chile wildfires from space
© NASA


The red dots represent heat at fires in Chile and Argentina detected by a satellite January 21, 2017.
Wildfires were caused by people, says the head of Chile's CONAF forestry service.

Fire fighters are battling the worst forest fires for over 10 years in central Chile as President Michelle Bachelet declares the state a "catastrophe".

Over 175,000 square miles were the site of a raging inferno in the area south of Santiago, the country's capital city. More than 200 people were evacuated as hundreds of firefighters, military and forestry workers were brought into the region to battle the blaze.

Josephina Lopez, from to the country's National Emergency Office (ONEMI), said no fatalities were reported but huge economic losses were expected.

The disaster was called "a sort of earthquake" for the area, agriculture minister Carlos Furche said on Chile's national radio, with a farming emergency declared. Crops and vineyards have been destroyed.


President Bachelet was seeking help from other countries, including its neighbour Argentina, while France had already offered assistance. "I've instructed the Interior Ministry to declare a catastrophe zone and a state of emergency in the areas affected by the fires," President Bachelet said on Twitter.

By calling a state of catastrophe, military personnel can be deployed to assist in dousing the wildfires.

Helicopters and planes were needed to drop fire retardant onto the forest areas, interior minister Mario Fernandez said, as high winds and a heat wave fuel the flames. Thick smoke from the intense fires is causing a thick haze over acres of land.

Television news footage showed helicopters and planes attempting to put out the fires, but apparently to little effect.

Authorities are attempting to discover the cause of the blaze although the forests have been extremely dry after several weeks without rain. January is the hottest month of the Chilean summer.

The head of Chile's CONAF forestry service, Aaron Cavieres, said the fires were caused by people, according to Voice of America, but whether they were set on purpose could not yet be determined.

In 2014, a fire in Valparaiso killed 15 people and destroyed over 2,000 homes.