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5 dead in Chile amid struggle to contain raging wildfires

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — At least five people have died as a result of the more than 150 wildfires burning across Chile that have destroyed homes and thousands of acres of forests while the South American country is in the midst of a scorching heat wave.

The deaths all took place in the Biobío region, around 560kms (348 miles) south of the capital of Santiago. Fourth of the deaths occurred in two separate vehicles.

“In one case they were burned because they were hit by the fire,” Interior Minister Carolina Tohá said. In the other case, she added, they suffered an accident, “probably trying to escape the fire.”

The fifth victim was a firefighter who was run over by a fire truck while combatting the blaze in the area.

As of early afternoon Friday, there were 151 active wildfires throughout Chile, including 65 that were under control. The fires have blazed through more than 14,000 hectares (34,595 acres).

Most of the wildfires are taking place in Biobío and neighboring Ñuble, where the government has declared states of catastrophe that allows greater coordination with the military and the suspension of certain constitutional rights.

The heatwave hitting Chile is set to continue with high temperatures and strong winds that could make combating the wildfires more challenging.

President Gabriel Boric suspended his vacation to travel to the affected areas on Friday and said there is “evidence” that some of the wildfires were sparked by unauthorized burnings.

“The full force of the state will be deployed to, first of all, fight the fires and to accompany all the victims,” Boric said.

It remains unclear how many homes, and other structures, have been burned.

“Families are having a very difficult time,” Ivonne Rivas, the mayor of Tomé in Biobío, told local radio. “It’s hell what they are living through, the fire got away from us.”

The ongoing wildfires caused the suspension of a highly anticipated announcement by forensic experts who were expected to give the cause of death of Chilean poet and Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda.

The experts were set to give their view on whether Neruda died of complications from prostate cancer or whether he was poisoned, potentially settling one of the great mysteries of post-coup Chile.

The doctor in charge of delivering the report’s findings was unable to connect to the internet because he is in a region that has been affected by the wildfires, a spokesman for the country’s judiciary said.