At least six Chilean firefighters perished Thursday after tackling one of a series of raging wildfires blamed by President Sebastian Pinera on arsonists.
An unusually hot and dry early summer and high winds have seen forest fires ravage large areas of central and southern Chile, burning down scores of homes and destroying some 50,000 hectares (123,000 acres) of woodland and brush.
"We have reliable information that makes us presume there is criminal intentionality behind these fires," President Sebastian Pinera said Thursday, raising the toll from the blaze in Cautin province to six.
Cautin governor Miguel Mellado said earlier that 10 firefighters were trapped while fighting the blaze in a mountainside forest. Five died, two were evacuated by helicopter with injuries, and another three were missing, he said.
"The fire suddenly surrounded them because of the wind, they drew closer together, one against another, and saw the fire pass above them," Mellado told Canal 13 TV.
"It is most probable that the two survivors were those who were underneath," he said. "We are feeling immense sorrow."
Some 24,800 hectares (62,000 acres) of land have been destroyed by blazes in the neighboring Bio Bio region, where some 160 homes had been destroyed and 600 people displaced, officials said Wednesday.
Pinera announced Sunday that a five-day inferno in southern Chile's Torres del Paine National Park, a 2,400-square-kilometer (927-square-mile) nature preserve in the Patagonian steppe, had been brought under control.
An Israeli citizen, Rotem Singer, 23, is charged with accidentally starting the Torres del Paine fire. He is accused of negligently trying to extinguish a burning roll of toilet paper, which he denies.
Singer was released from police custody, but ordered not to leave Chile until an investigation is complete. He faces a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail and a fine of $300.
The only casualty in the spate of wildfires before Thursday was a 75-year-old man who refused to leave his home in the Bio Bio region.
Pinera has blamed the La Nina weather phenomenon and "global warming" for contributing to drought conditions that helped the fires spread.© ANP/AFP