SANTIAGO, Chile — Firefighters in Chile battled three huge wildfires Monday that have burned about 90 square miles (23,000 hectares) of forest, destroyed more than 100 homes and have driven away thousands of tourists while causing millions of dollars in losses.
The fires also claimed their first victim: an elderly man who refused warnings to leave his home.
Chile's normally rainy southern regions are suffering from a nationwide heat wave, on top of a drought that makes fires increasingly likely. The country was battling 48 separate fires on Sunday alone, and red alerts were declared for the regions of Magallanes, Bio Bio and Maule.
"We have a situation of extreme vulnerability," said President Sebastian Pinera, who called for toughening sentences for arson.
In the Bio Bio region, a the timber industry is threatened by fire that destroyed an Arauco company paper mill. Shares in Arauco's parent company, Copec SA, dropped nearly 4 percent in Monday trading. One of the Bio Bio fires also killed a 75-year-old man who refused to evacuate. Hundreds of others who did leave their homes were forced to relocate yet again early Monday as the flames advanced.
In Magallanes, more than 7 percent of the famed Torres del Paine national park had burned, ruining vacations for some of the 150,000 tourists who come each year, mostly during the brief southern summer. Strong winds grounded helicopters and planes for long periods, leaving the fight to more than 750 firefighters on the ground, who have contained four of six areas where the fire spread. Authorities hoped to reopen the northern section of the park to tourists later in the week.
An Israeli tourist, Rotem Singer, 23, has denied a charge of negligently starting the Torres del Paine fire, but prosecutor Ivan Vidal said Singer's traveling companions said he set fire to toilet paper after going to the bathroom, and then failed to put it out completely. If convicted, he faces up to two months in jail.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.