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Blaze in Chilean port city kills 12, destroys 2,000 houses

Fire still not completely extinguished, local officials said, as over 10,000 residents were evacuated and 500 injured

At least 12 people have been killed by a massive blaze in Chile’s port city of Valparaiso famous for its UNESCO-listed historic center, authorities confirmed Monday.

Chilean police said 12 people have been confirmed dead, 500 injured and more than 10,000 people evacuated.

Pushed by strong Pacific coast winds, the fire rampaged over 741 acres of hilly residential neighborhoods — destroying at least 500 homes. The cause of the fire, which began in woodland near the city late on Saturday, was being investigated.

Over 2,000 homes were destroyed in the city of 250,000 over the weekend. Valparaiso’s rolling hills and closely spaced houses, many of them made of wood, make it difficult to fight the flames. The city, part gritty port town and part bohemian retreat, has a large number of people living in poverty.

The country’s Congress, which resides in Valparaiso, and the city’s historic quarter, with its late 19th century architecture, were spared by the blaze. Valparaiso is located about 90 miles northwest of the capital, Santiago.

President Michelle Bachelet declared a state of emergency and sent the army in to maintain order while ambulance crews treated people for smoke inhalation and other injuries. Bachelet arrived in the area Sunday to oversee an emergency committee’s response.

“The fire is still not completely extinguished,” said local government official Ricardo Bravo.

A large emergency operation is underway, with the military deployed across the city to control the operation and prevent looting. Helicopters and planes flew overhead, spraying the blaze with water.

‘‘My brother’s house was entirely burnt. We had only finished it two weeks ago. We tried to save something but it was truly an inferno,’’ one resident, Cristobal Perez, told the Chilevision television network.

The thousands who were evacuated were sent to nearby schools, gymnasiums, or to stay with family and friends, authorities said. There are still some people who are unaccounted for.

The vast blaze has caused cuts to power and drinking water in many areas of Valparaiso. Fires occur frequently in central Chile, where summer sends temperatures soaring. In February 2013, some 105 homes were destroyed in Valparaiso, affecting 1,200 people, after a 27-year-old man started a blaze.

The navy, which has a major base in the port city, immediately responded by taking over security. It deployed uniformed personnel into the streets to maintain order and to help with the evacuations.

Valparaiso is one of Chile’s most important ports. It lived its era of glory from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century as a stopover point for ships steaming down South America and to round its southern tip into the Atlantic Ocean.

The center of the city still features the many colored houses dating from that period, built by European immigrants. Its cobbled streets and funicular trams running up near-vertical rails supported its 2003 listing as a UNESCO-protected heritage site.

Some residents who were forced to leave returned to the city Monday morning to see if they could find anything that survived the blaze.

“We are looking for something to remember our home by, but there’s nothing,” Jose Miguel Rivera, 59, told Reuters as he sifted through the ashes where his house used to be.

“We are thinking about rebuilding.”

Al Jazeera and wire services. With additional reporting by Al Jazeera’s David Schweimler in Santiago, Chile.

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