By Anthony Esposito
VALPARAISO, Chile (Reuters) - An enormous fire ripped through parts of the Chilean port city Valparaiso on Saturday and into Sunday, killing two people, destroying at least 500 houses and causing the evacuation of thousands of residents.
Chilean marines patrolled the streets after President Michelle Bachelet declared a state of emergency, in what Valparaiso mayor Jorge Castro described as the worst fire in the city's history.
Valparaiso is one of the country's most important ports, located about 135km to the west of the capital Santiago.
The fire, fueled by strong Pacific coast winds, was responsible for the deaths of two senior citizens, rear admiral Julio Leiva told local radio.
Initial reports also indicated that there were at least four people with varying degrees of injuries.
Ambulance crews treated residents for smoke inhalation as the fire engulfed block after block and set off some small explosions.
Mayor Castro warned that the initial figure of 500 destroyed homes could increase once daylight gave authorities the chance to assess the full extent of the damage.
The nation's Onemi emergency office estimated that some 5,000 people had been evacuated from their homes.
Nearly 12 hours after the blaze began, sirens still howled and ash fell throughout the normally picturesque hills of Valparaiso as firefighters struggled to bring the flames under control.
The La Cruz and Las Canas neighborhoods were among the most affected.
"We fled from the La Cruz neighborhood, from an apartment I just got not too long ago. It's all burned down, my sister's house also burnt to the ground in the fire," said a visibly upset Rosa Guzman as she stared helplessly up at the glowing hills.
Valparaiso's historic quarter, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city's port and Congress were not currently in the direct path of the fire.
The strong winds and thick smoke kept fire-fighting helicopters and planes grounded at least until daybreak.
"The weather is complicating the situation," emergency official Guillermo de la Mazza told reporters. "The wind is not doing us any favors. The evacuation is our top priority, along with controlling the fire itself."
High temperatures and strong winds were forecast for the stricken city on Sunday.
There were no reports that exports of copper in the world's No.1 producer of the metal were affected by the fire.
(Reporting by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Robert Birsel and Erica Billingham)