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Firefighters battle blazes in France and Portugal

Fires that raged through countryside near Marseille left a trail of destruction but were no longer threatening the southern French city on Thursday, while another blaze erupted near the Spanish border, forcing dozens to evacuate.

In the Marseille area, some 500 people have fled their homes since Wednesday as flames fanned by strong winds consumed more than 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of mainly scrubland and forest, and gutted several homes.

French President Francois Hollande said the authorities believe some of the fires were started deliberately and vowed that the perpetrators would be tracked down.

In the Pyrenees region near the Spanish border, another fire erupted on Thursday, devastating 850 hectares and forcing the evacuation of 60 people from their homes as the flames edged dangerously close to a village, police said.

“The police knocked on our doors and told us to leave and to turn off the gas,” said Annie, a resident of the village of Rodes who took shelter at the tourist information centre nearby.

“The smoke was so thick that we couldn’t see the village, which is just a kilometre (0.6 miles) from here,” said Nathalie Dephino, an official at the centre.

Five hundred firefighters have been deployed in the Pyrenees area, with reinforcements arriving from Spain.

The Portuguese holiday island of Madeira was also counting the cost after fires killed three people.

However, wildfires in Madeira’s picturesque capital Funchal that had turned the sky orange and forced foreign holidaymakers to be evacuated were brought under control overnight.

– Record-high temperature –

At the French port of Fos-sur-Mer northwest of Marseille, 800 hectares went up in flames on Wednesday, prompting fears for the safety of oil and chemical terminals.

The fire badly affected transportation by road and air on Wednesday, with two motorways closed and some flights cancelled at Marseille airport.

The authorities said while Marseille was no longer in danger, they were taking no chances because strong winds could force the fires to spread again despite having remained relatively light on Thursday.

Some 1,200 firefighters were still working to dampen down smouldering areas of brush and trees, fire service Lieutenant-Colonel Nicolas Faure said, adding that he believed the danger was subsiding.

Police arrested a man Wednesday near the town of Vitrolles on suspicion of starting one of the fires deliberately.

Hollande, speaking in his home region of Correze in central France, said “those responsible will be found and punished”.

On the Atlantic island of Madeira, where three people died, smoke still lingered on Thursday over the historic centre of the city of Funchal, which had been shrouded in smoke and ash for three days.

A hotel overlooking Funchal was destroyed and more than 150 homes were left uninhabitable, officials said.

The mercury topped 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit), the hottest temperature there since 1976, while winds gusted to 90 kilometres (55 miles) per hour, civil protection official Rubina Leal said.

Around 1,000 people were initially evacuated, including many foreign tourists, and 400 people on Wednesday spent a second night at an army barracks.

– ‘Time to rebuild’ –

Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa visited the island on Thursday in a bid to reassure tourists that the fires were now under control.

“It is time for us to move to the next stage — rebuild, get back to normal and re-establish confidence across the world in Madeira as a great tourist destination,” he said.

A first-division football match between Madeira club CD Nacional and Chaves, scheduled for the start of the Portuguese season on Sunday, was postponed because of damage to the stadium in Funchal, the club said.

On the Portuguese mainland, some 1,800 firefighters were battling a dozen major forest fires that have raged since last weekend in the north of the country.

Portugal’s EU partners have answered a request for assistance and an Italian air tanker will join two Spanish water bombers already deployed, while Morocco has also offered to contribute two additional planes.