VALPARAISO, Chile — Chilean Church leaders called for Catholics to respond with prayer and solidarity to aid about 1,000 people who lost their homes in fires that swept through hillside neighborhoods around the southern port city of Valparaiso on Christmas Eve and Christmas.

Bishop Pedro Ossandon Buljevic, apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Valparaiso, urged Catholics to “join in prayer to transform ourselves into a single great manger of solidarity, that welcomes and accompanies in this initial moment of pain and in the large process of recovery.”

Although the final tally is not complete, Valparaiso church workers estimated that at least 250 houses were destroyed on the hillsides, where the steep terrain made it difficult for firefighters to combat the blazes.

By Dec. 27, the fires were under control, with just a few hot spots remaining, Maria Eugenia Quitral Veloso of the Valparaiso diocesan communications office told Catholic News Service.

Chilean government officials said they suspected the fires, which were exacerbated by high temperatures, strong winds and prolonged drought, were set deliberately.

Caritas, the Church’s social ministry office, is providing emergency assistance to families and will aid with reconstruction of homes and small businesses lost in the fires.

Fires occur almost every year in southern Chile, where large plantations of pine and eucalyptus trees are common. A fire in November in Curauma, near Valparaiso, burned an area of nearly 8 square miles. Two men were arrested in that case.

Major fires occurred around Valparaiso in 2013, 2014 and 2017, Catherine Mella Quiroz, who heads the environment, risk management and emergencies program of the Chilean bishops’ social ministry office, told CNS in an email message.

Caritas has been working with hillside communities on fire prevention and control, Mella said.

“The idea is that there be no more fires,” she said. “We have made progress, and there are areas that are not being affected (by fires) now, but we have to reach (others) and, for that, we need the solidarity of the community. Our goal is to reach more (hillside neighborhoods) with the courses we offer.”

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