At least 24 dead in Chile as wildfires expand; foreign help on the way



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By Fabian Cambero

SANTIAGO, Feb 5 (Reuters) -Firefighters were battled dozens of raging wildfires in Chile on Sunday, seeking to gain control of one of the country's worst natural disasters in years as the death toll rose to at least 24 with nearly 1,000 more injured.

International help was set to arrive on Sunday from a handful of countries that have pledged resources, including planes and expert firefighting teams, as the most intense wildfires torched forests and farmland clustered around three regions near the middle of the South American country's long Pacific coastline.

The government of President Gabriel Boric has issued emergency declarations for the largely rural southern regions of Biobio, Nuble and Araucania in an effort to speed relief.

The fires have consumed some 270,000 hectares, officials said on Sunday, or an area roughly the size of the U.S. state of Rhode Island.

A searing heat wave in the Southern Hemisphere's summer has complicated efforts to extinguish the flames, as temperatures in some of the most affected areas have exceeded 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 Celsius).

Pockets of intense fire could be seen leaping out from the forested hills off the coast near the town of Dichato just outside the city of Concepcion in the Biobio region on Saturday night, as light from the flames illuminated boats in the small harbor.

Thirteen of the dead -- more than half of the fires' reported victims -- come from Biobio, which, like Nuble and Araucania, is home to extensive forests as well as farms that grow grapes and other fruit for export.

Some 260 fires are active across the parched region, interior ministry officials said on Sunday, with 28 of them considered especially dangerous.

Nearly 1,500 people have fled to area shelters. At least 26 of the 970 injured are listed in grave condition at local hospitals.

Chilean officials have sought international assistance to battle the fires, with new ones sparking to life each day.

While authorities on Saturday said assistance would soon arrive from countries including the United States, Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil and Venezuela, a specialized team of personnel from Spain was en route on Sunday.



Reporting by Fabian Cambero; Additional Reporting by Diego Ore; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Mark Porter

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