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Arsonists blamed for Spanish wildfires

Spanish authorities on Tuesday blamed arsonists and record temperatures for wildfires ravaging the eastern coast near the popular resort of Benidorm that have forced 1,400 people to flee.

Hundreds of firefighters backed by water-dropping aircraft were battling the largest of several fires which began Sunday near the resort of Javea, up the coast from Benidorm on Spain’s Costa Blanca.

Another blaze was raging near the mountain town of Bolulla, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) west of Javea, while Spanish emergency services faced a third one on the Mediterranean island of Menorca, also popular with holidaymakers.

More than two dozen stations registered record high temperatures across the country on Monday in what Spain’s weather agency said was a “historic day for heat”.

Most of Spain has faced an “extreme risk” of wildfires since Sunday due to the heatwave, with temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) in some parts.

However, authorities also said that gasoline cans had been found and that there were “three or four” separate outbreaks of fire.

“There is one or several arsonists,” Jose Maria Angel Batalla, an emergency services chief responsible for the Costa Blanca area, told the Cope radio station, referring to the fire near Javea.

– Difficult to control –

The main blaze roared through scrubland along the coastline near residential areas around Javea, sending thick plumes of grey smoke into the air.

It has razed more than 800 hectares (1,900 acres) of land, according to the regional government and charred several buildings in the area which is popular with British and German holidaymakers.

Images broadcast on Spanish television showed a wall of flames moving towards a row of white-washed villas.

“It’s an area with a lot of villas and country homes with old pines. It is a very difficult area to control a fire,” Juan Carlos Moragues, who represents the Spanish government in the eastern region of Valencia, told Onda Cero radio.

Officials have evacuated around 1,400 people, including tourists, with many spending the night in local schools or at local residents’ homes.

– ‘They gave us their bed’ –

Many said they fled with just the clothes they were wearing.

Tessa Wells, a 99-year-old British retiree who is confined to a wheelchair, had to be helped by two neighbours down the stairs of her home, according to her caregiver, Rosa Serra.

She was then taken by ambulance to a shelter set up at a high school where a couple who live nearby offered to put her up in their home, Serra told local newspaper Las Provincias.

“They not only took us to their home, they gave us their bed and Tessa was able to sleep. That is solidarity,” Serra said.

Firefighters said the intense heat, combined with low humidity levels and strong winds which changed direction, had fuelled the fire on the Costa Blanca but that they were starting to gain the upper hand.

The wildfire on the island of Menorca broke out on Monday, and so far has destroyed around 50 hectares of land, a local emergency services official said.

Around 600 people were either evacuated, or ordered to stay in their home or hotels because of the blaze, which firefighters said was now “stable”.

– Portuguese blazes –

Intense heat was also fuelling wildfires in neighbouring Portugal where about 60 tourists, mostly foreigners, were forced to evacuate late Monday in Setubal about 30 kilometres (18 miles) south of Lisbon.

Over 3,500 firefighters battled about 100 blazes raging across the country on Tuesday, with more than 107,000 hectares destroyed since the beginning of the year, according to the national civil protection service.

One devastating fire was reported Tuesday in the Peneda Geres national park in northern Portugal, with the residents of two villages surrounded by flames forced to flee their homes, firefighters said.