By Aislinn Laing and Natalia A. Ramos Miranda

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – More than 245 homes have been destroyed and 700 people left destitute after a forest fire tore through a low-income area of the Chilean seaside city of Valparaiso on Christmas Eve.

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera said on Thursday during a tour of the affected zone that there was evidence the fire had been started deliberately.

“There are indications, some evidence, that this could have been intentional,” he said. “That would be extremely serious.

“I deeply regret that what should have been a good night, a night of peace, should have been so profoundly altered by this tragedy.”

Valparaiso, known for its colorful wood-frame houses, is popular among tourists in the South American country.

The fire broke out on Tuesday in a forested area on the outskirts of the city and spread toward the coast, hitting the Rocuant and San Roque hills, a jumble of settlements that overlook the city.

Inhabitants fled their homes just moments before sitting down to their Christmas Eve dinner, some losing all their belongings and even pets.

Chile´s forestry commission said the fire was only fully brought under control at midday on Thursday with the help of nine firefighting teams, five helicopters and two water trucks. A total of 132 hectares of vegetation were destroyed, it added.

Agriculture Minister Antonio Walker said the high temperatures at the height of the southern hemisphere summer, which runs from December to March, and dry conditions caused by a historic drought currently blighting Chile had provided fertile ground for the fire.

He said that so far this season, there had already been a 300% increase in the area affected compared with the same period the previous year, with 2,378 fires recorded and 15,203 hectares consumed. The ministry has said that could reach 120,000 by the end of the summer.

He appealed to all Chileans to be vigilant for the outbreak of fires and report them immediately.

Emergency shelters have been set up to host those left homeless, and national appeals for help for those affected are gaining traction.

Valparaiso´s mayor, Jorge Sharp, said on Wednesday he had laid a criminal complaint with the courts against the authors of the fire, once they are identified.

“That this fire was intentionally started is, from various indications, clear and we want to know who is responsible and why they would want to cause so much damage to Valparaíso,” he said.

Reporting by Aislinn Laing and Natalia Ramos; Editing by Steve Orlofsky