SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — A fire raging in the Chilean port city of Valparaiso has killed at least seven people and destroyed 500 homes, officials said Sunday. Thousands have been evacuated, including more than 200 female inmates at a prison.
Firefighters struggled as high winds rained hot ash over the wooden houses and narrow streets of the city of 250,000, where people use staircases to reach some of the neighborhoods that hug steep hills between the forest and the sea.
"This is the worst disaster I have seen," regional governor Ricardo Bravo said. "Now we fear that the fire will spread to the center of the city, which would increase the severity of the emergency."
President Michelle Bachelet arrived Sunday to oversee an emergency committee's response. She declared the entire city a catastrophe zone, putting Chile's military in charge of maintaining order as more than 5,000 people were evacuated amid the smoke and flames.
Seven people were confirmed dead, police Gen. Julio Pineda said, and the toll was expected to rise.
It was the worst fire to hit the picturesque seaside city since 1953, when 50 people were killed and every structure was destroyed on several of the city's hills.
Thick clouds of smoke surrounded the city's prison and nine pregnant inmates were transferred to a detention facility in the nearby city of Quillota. Prison authorities were evacuating another 204 female inmates to a sports arena. More than 2,700 male inmates will remain at the prison for now, prison guard commander Tulio Arce said.
Valparaiso Mayor Jorge Castro said "at least 500 homes have been destroyed by the fire." He said shelters for those forced to flee have been set up. The city was experiencing cuts to the electricity supply, he said.
While firefighters, police and forest rangers battled the blaze and helicopters dropped water on hotspots, Chilean sailors in combat gear patrolled streets in the city to maintain order and prevent looting.
The fire started Saturday afternoon on the edge of the city and spread rapidly because of strong winds. Hot ash rained down, starting other fires, and the smoke caused breathing problems, especially children and the elderly.
Valparaiso, about 120 kilometers (75 miles) northwest of the capital, Santiago, is home to Chile's national legislature.
Associated Press Writer Eva Vergara contributed to this story.