Firefighters struggled for a second night today to contain blazes that have killed 12 people, injured 500, destroyed 2,000 homes and forced 10,000 people to flee the densely populated hills that gave this Chilean port city its unique beauty.
Fires they thought were contained 24 hours after they started on Saturday kicked up again with yesterday afternoon's winds and raged out of control, threatening more neighbourhoods. With no municipal water or fire hydrants to use, routes to the blazes blocked by narrow streets jammed with abandoned vehicles and countless embers being stoked, fire crews could do little but watch some neighbourhoods burn.
From the sky, 20 helicopters and planes were mobilised to drop water on hotspots, but Chile's national emergency office said the battle was far from won. "This won't be extinguished, not today nor tomorrow," the office tweeted after issuing a new alert when fires kicked up again yesterday afternoon.
The blaze began in a forested ravine next to ramshackle housing on one of Valparaiso's 42 hilltops, and spread quickly. Hot ash rained down over wooden houses and narrow streets.
Electricity failed as the fire grew, turning the night sky orange and reducing neighbourhoods on six hilltops to ashes. Schools were closed today in the city, since some were damaged and others were overflowing with evacuees.
President Michelle Bachelet toured the shelters and cancelled this week's trip to Argentina and Uruguay, ordering her ministers to meet with her today morning to explain their responses.
"It's a tremendous tragedy. This could be the worst fire in the city's history," she said. Valparaiso is a picturesque oceanside city of 250,000 people surrounded by hills that form a natural amphitheatre.
The compact downtown includes Chile's congress and its second-largest port. But most of the people live in the hills, and the city owes its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site to their colourful homes, built on slopes so steep that many people commute using staircases and cable cars. But what's beautiful in postcards can be dangerous for those who live there: Many people have built on land not fit for housing, and entire communities lack municipal water connections.