Hundreds of people were evacuated from the Chilean port of Valparaiso due to a forest fire
Hundreds of people were evacuated from the Chilean port of Valparaiso due to a forest fireGetty

A blazing inferno in the Chilean port of Valparaiso has claimed the lives of at least two people and destroyed 500 homes.

Thousands of people have been evacuated, including over 200 female prison inmates, according to the Associated Press.

The fire started on Saturday afternoon in hills on the edge of the city and was spread quickly by high winds. On Sunday, hot ash rained down, causing respiratory problems, especially for children and the elderly.

Firefighters were battling to control the fire in the steep terrain, with the area surrounded by precipitous hills, where most of the people have homes. Valparaiso is about 75 miles north-west of the capital, Santiago.

President Michelle Bachelet declared Valparaiso a catastrophe zone. This effectively puts the armed forces in control of law and order as well as evacuating thousands of people in immediate danger.

Firefighters were battling to keep control the inferno as the terrain is very steep and hilly
Firefighters were battling to keep control the inferno as the terrain is very steep and hillyGetty

"This is the worst disaster I have seen," regional governor Ricardo Bravo said. "Now we fear that the fire will spread to the centre of the city, which would increase the severity of the emergency."

Volunteer firefighters found the charred bodies of two elderly people on a street in the port area, said Chilean navy Admiral Julio Leiva.

Thick plumes of smoke encircled the city's prison and nine pregnant inmates were transferred to a detention facility in the nearby city of Quillota.

Prison authorities also evacuated another 204 female inmates to a sports arena. However, the 2,700 male inmates will stay at the prison for the immediate future, said prison guard commander Tulio Arce.

"At least 500 homes have been destroyed by the fire," said Valparaiso Mayor Jorge Castro. Shelters for those forced to leave their homes have been set up, and the city was experiencing cuts to the electricity supply, he added.

Chilean marines in combat gear have been drafted in to patrol the streets.