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Worst wildfires in Chile's history have killed 11 people, threaten wine and timber industries

Chile’s worst ever wildfires threatened the city of Concepcion and the nation’s wine industry Friday, a day after flames destroyed a town about 200 miles south of the nation’s capital.

President Michelle Bachelet’s office said the fires had killed 11 people, forced the evacuation of more than 5,000 and burned nearly 900,000 acres, mainly forests.

Most of the evacuees come from the town of Santa Olga, southwest of Santiago, which was destroyed Thursday. 

“We are facing a serious situation and can only succeed if we work together,” Bachelet told reporters Friday morning after coordinating relief efforts at a meeting at the La Moneda presidential palace. Earlier in the week, Bachelet said the fires were the worst in the country’s history.

The government said Friday that as many as 65 separate fires continued to burn out of control. 

Felipe Neira, president of Itata Valley winemakers association, said in a telephone interview that the industry, which is mostly concentrated in central Chile, so far had had lost about 100 acres of vineyards to the fires but that 1,250 acres were in jeopardy.

“Our wine heritage is burning up,” Neira said.

Firefighters, police and soldiers were concentrating in Concepcion in a bid to keep the fast moving flames from the city of 250,000. The Chilean navy dispatched 550 marines to maintain order in Concepcion and other affected areas.

Flames were reported to have destroyed several houses in the Concepcion suburb of Chaimavida.

International aid, including firefighters from Peru, Colombia and France, had begun to arrive, Bachelet’s office said. 

Bachelet has declared a state of emergency in the Valparaiso, O´Higgins, Maule, Bio Bio and La Araucania regions. Businesses and residents in those areas are eligible for agricultural subsidies as well as debt relief.

The fires started in mountainous areas southeast of the capital in November and spread due to high temperatures and strong winds, said Augusto Roberts, a spokesman for the commercial timber company Forestal Mininco. The timber industry had lost about 100,000 acres of commercial forests.

“The management of firebreaks is not only [to maintain] distance between the timber plantations, it is also important to keep houses away from potential sources of fuel,” Roberts said. “In Chile there is still much to learn."

Special correspondent Poblete reported from Santiago, Chile. Special correspondent Chris Kraul in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.

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