Firefighters battle wildfires in Portugal, Spain
Thousands of firefighters in Spain and Portugal on Wednesday battled blazes that threatened locals and tourists, as authorities hoped the arrival of cooler weather would help tame the flames.
One of the most devastating fires was raging in Portugal’s Peneda-Geres National Park not far from the border with Spain’s northern Galicia region, where there were five major wildfires.
“Pastures have burned, there is nothing for livestock to eat,” said the deputy mayor of the border town of Arcos de Valdevez, Helder Barros.
“It is a calamity for the natural park, the only one in Portugal, and for tourism.”
The blaze encircled two hamlets of granite houses, Paradela and Varzea, leading officials to temporarily evacuate their residents overnight.
“We were surrounded by flames on all sides, police ordered me and my husband to leave the house but we refused,” Eva, a 71-year-old Paradela resident, told Portuguese television as she tried to put out the flames with her garden hose.
“We experienced a Dante-esque afternoon,” said Jean Lobo, the mayor of Portuguese commune Proenca-a-Nova, where two other hamlets had to be evacuated.
More than 3,200 Portuguese firefighters backed by aircraft were at the scene of about 80 fires on Wednesday, down from the 3,800 deployed at 100 fires the previous night, the country’s civil protection agency said.
Carlos Guerra, an official with the agency, on Wednesday said most fires were under control even if not fully extinguished.
The mercury has topped 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in recent days but the national weather office forecast maximum temperatures would drop by between 4 and 8 degrees Celsius on Wednesday.
Still, over a third of Portugal faced a “very high” or “maximum” risk of wildfires on Wednesday.
Some 300 firefighters brought one of the largest fires, which has been burning since Monday near the northern town of Boticas, under control on Wednesday afternoon.
Local officials evacuated children and the elderly from a nearby hamlet overnight.
– ‘Murderers’ –
On Spain’s eastern coast firefighters had managed to stabilise a wildfire raging since Sunday near the popular resort of Benidorm that prompted the temporary evacuation of 1,400 people.
“They continue to work to water the area. The fire… has been stabilised,” a local emergency services spokeswoman said.
Authorities suspect the blaze was deliberately set and are looking for the culprits.
Another wildfire on the holiday island of Menorca was declared under control on Tuesday night after destroying scrubland and pine forest near Arenal d’en Castell, emergency services said.
That fire “was caused by children playing, probably due to a firecracker”, the regional government said.
Temperatures in Spain have also hit record highs in recent days, topping 44 degrees Celsius in some places.
As such, Spain’s Agriculture Minister Isabel Garcia Tejerina said there was an “added risk” of wildfires due to the intense heat.
“We remain in wildfire season even though we are in the month of September,” she said, adding arsonists were to blame for most major wildfires in Spain this year.
At least 92 fire outbreaks have been recorded since Monday in the Galician province of Orense, leading officials to suspect arson.
The rural affairs minister in Galicia’s regional government, Angeles Vazquez Mejuto, said those who deliberately set wildfires in the middle of a heatwave were “murderers”.
According to the agriculture ministry, wildfires destroyed almost 40,000 hectares (100,000 acres) of land between January and August — an area close to the size of Barbados.
But this is still far less than the average for the period, which since 2006 has been around 78,000 hectares.
Wildfires have so far this year destroyed over 107,000 hectares of land in mainland Portugal and another 5,400 on the holiday island of Madeira, where fires killed three people in August and charred dozens of homes.