Forest fires rage in Chile, made worse by strong winds, drought

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A general view of the area of natural reserve of "China Muerta" at the Conguillio national park during a wildfire

A general view of the area of natural reserve of "China Muerta" (Chinese Dead) at the Conguillio national park during a wildfire in Temuco, March 21, 2015. REUTERS/Hector Andrade

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Strong winds and unusually hot weather in southern Chile are fueling out-of-control forest fires, which are consuming large swaths of national parks and ancient woodland parched by a prolonged drought.

The fires have burnt over 6,000 hectares at the China Muerta and Nalca Lolco reserves, as well as the Conguillio national park, revered for its forests of thousand-year-old Araucarias, or monkey-puzzle trees.

Strong winds, drought conditions and striking firefighters have hindered efforts to fight the blazes. Worried residents have complained that authorities have been slow to react.

"We ask the government to urgently bring the air support needed to fight the fire. ... We firmly believe that if stronger measures aren't taken to stop the fire, the ecological damage will be irreversible," said the indigenous Pewenche community of Quinquen in a statement.

But heavy winds, forecast to persist, have kept firefighting aircraft grounded.

"We expect that on Thursday weather conditions will allow the airplanes and helicopters to fly and drop fire-retardant liquids," said Interior Undersecretary Mahmud Aleuy.

Some 180 firefighters are on strike in central Chile, squeezing already tight resources for combating the blaze.

"We have issued a red alert to get more resources to the area ... today we have 30 firefighters from Argentina and we are now coordinating with (firefighting) crews in Brazil and Uruguay, though we still don't know when they will arrive," said Aleuy.

In the 2014-2015 season, forest fires have so far consumed 91,327 hectares, far above the average of 59,300 per year over the previous five years, according to government forestry agency Conaf.

(Reporting by Antonio de la Jara; Additional reporting and writing by Anthony Esposito; Editing by David Gregorio)