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3 killed as fires ravage Madeira

Three people were killed, two seriously hurt and around a thousand forced to flee overnight as fires ravaged the Portuguese holiday island of Madeira, reaching the capital Funchal, rescuers said Wednesday.

The three victims died in their homes close to the town’s historic centre, while a hotel overlooking the town was destroyed and other buildings were licked by flames, officials said.

“Last night, the fire was a hundred metres (yards) away from the hotel and you could hear gas bottles exploding,” Ricardo Correia, a manager at the hotel Castanheiro, told AFP.

“We evacuated our 140 guests as a precaution,” Correia said, explaining they had spent the night in a sports stadium on the western side of the town.

“The situation was calmer this morning and the clients are progressively returning,” Correia said.

The president of the Madeira region, Miguel Albuquerque, said the fire was still burning on several fronts but was “under control.”

“The situation is complex but not catastrophic,” he told a press conference.

Fires began in the hills around Funchal on Monday night but 24 hours later worsened dramatically, fanned by strong winds.

A vast ball of smoke was seen above Funchal on Tuesday with the evening sky turned orange by the flames, prompting locals to photograph the scene from surrounding hills.

“Roughly a thousand people had to be evacuated from homes and hotels,” among them both residents and tourists, according to Funchal mayor Paulo Cafofo, quoted by the Lusa news agency.

Hospitals and old people’s homes were evacuated as flames advanced on built-up areas.

Around 600 people holed up in a Portuguese military base, sleeping on camp beds, and 300 were evacuated to the Barreiros stadium, Cafofo said.

– Spate of forest fires –

Overnight, Portugal dispatched a team of 110 specialists including firefighters, police and doctors to help bolster the island’s response to the blaze while the Azores, another Portuguese territory in the Atlantic ocean, deployed 30 men to assist.

Dubbed “the Pearl of the Atlantic,” Madeira is an autonomous region of Portugal with a population of about a quarter of a million.

The archipelago of four volcanic islands is located around 500 kilometres (300 miles) off northwest Africa in warm sub-tropical waters that have made it a popular tourist and cruiseship destination.

Mainland Portugal, meanwhile, has also been struck by a spate of forest fires since Friday with the north of the country, where temperatures have surged to 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit), particularly hard hit.

On Wednesday about half of the north was on alert for fires with the risk assessed as between “heightened” and “maximum”.

More than 3,000 people have been battling to contain roughly 100 fires across the country with 12 major blazes leading to the evacuation of local residents overnight.

Prime Minister Antonio Costa said Tuesday he would request assistance from other European countries and Russia if the blazes do not abate by next Monday.