Videos showed apocalyptic scenes of what are believed to be the country’s deadliest forest fires on record, with the sky turning red as cars raced down roads with flames on either side of them, and reports of bodies seen lying by roadsides.
In other areas, the air was filled with dense black smoke. Drone footage revealed large areas of devastation where rows of buildings have been burnt to the ground.
Gridlock on roads out of the region meant that some of those attempting to evacuate found themselves trapped for hours.
“It’s very distressing,” one woman who was stuck in traffic with her elderly mother told AFP. “There are all these people trying to get out and who can’t move.”
The death toll is expected to rise significantly as the fires rapidly advanced towards more densely-populated areas.
“If you are told to evacuate, don’t hesitate to do it,” Gabriel Boric, the president of Chile, urged residents, as he declared a state of emergency. “The fires are advancing fast and climatic conditions have made them difficult to control.”
The fires come as the country is hit by a summer heatwave, with Chile’s capital Santiago sweltering through hot, dry days of 33C (91.4F) and higher. Authorities suspect that some of the fires were started intentionally, however.
Authorities deployed 1,400 firefighters on Sunday, alongside soldiers, planes and helicopters in a bid to control the blazes, with rescue services struggling to reach some of the affected areas.
The fires, which started in the mountains, have spread to coastal areas, reaching the cities of Viña del Mar and Valparaíso. Together they form a sprawling region that is home to more than one million people on Chile’s central coastline.
Footage published on social media showed several highways out of Viña del Mar were cut off as a result of the fires. Authorities have imposed a 9pm curfew to help rescue services circulate more easily.
“We are facing an unprecedented catastrophe,” said Macarena Ripamonti, mayor of Viña del Mar.
The picturesque Viña del Mar resort, known as “garden city”, is popular with surfers and tourists, while thousands of people visit Valparaíso, which is renowned for its wines, during the summer holidays.
In El Olivar, an area in Viña del Mar where many older people live, houses were scorched by the wildfires, with some residents describing the ordeal as “hell”.
Rodrigo Pulgar told AFP that he was trying to help his neighbour who was in trouble when he realised that his own house had started to burn.
“Ash was raining down on us,” Mr Pulgar said, adding that his neighbour could not get out in time and succumbed to the flames.
In Villa Independencia, a hillside neighbourhood on the eastern edge of Viña del Mar, several blocks of homes and businesses were destroyed. Burned cars with broken windows lined the ash-covered streets.
“I’ve been here 32 years, and never imagined this would happen,” said Rolando Fernández, one of the residents who lost his home.