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Portugal battles deadly forest fires

Three people have died in raging forest fires on Portugal’s holiday island of Madeira where flames damaged homes and a hotel and forced around 1,000 people to flee.

Portugal urged its European partners Wednesday to help in battling multiple blazes on the island known as the “Pearl of the Atlantic”.

The three perished in their homes close to the historic centre of the capital Funchal, while a hotel overlooking the town was destroyed and other buildings were licked by flames, officials said.

Firefighters worked through the night training jets of water high on to the orange flames against the dark night sky in Funchal’s narrow streets to try to protect its historic heart.

“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.

Correia said his 140 guests had been evacuated as a precaution and they had spent the night in a sports stadium.

By Wednesday evening the situation on Madeira appeared to be under control, though forest fires continued to rage on mainland Portugal.

Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo, who hails from Madeira, posted a message of support on his Facebook page.

“I’m watching what is happening in Madeira (and the rest of the country) with a lump in my throat,” wrote Ronaldo, a hero in Portugal for leading the national football team to victory in the Euro 2016 tournament in France last month.

“Good luck to everyone and thank you to the firefighters risking their lives to save others. I am with you.”

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 reporters.

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

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

“Roughly 1,000 people had to be evacuated from homes and hotels,” among them both residents and tourists, the Lusa news agency quoted Funchal mayor Paulo Cafofo as saying.

Holidaymakers from Britain and Germany had to be evacuated from their hotels and were being put up by local authorities, diplomatic sources said. None of them were hurt.

Hospitals and old people’s homes were evacuated as flames advanced on built-up areas in the autonomous region with a population of about a quarter of a million.

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

– ‘Understanding’ tourists –

Portugal has sought firefighting planes from its European partners, an interior ministry official told AFP, adding that the EU Civil Protection Mechanism had been activated.

An Italian plane has been mobilised, the European Commission said in a statement, adding to two planes deployed by Spain.

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.

Meanwhile, France on Wednesday mobilised 1,500 firefighters to deal with blazes in countryside north of Marseille that have gutted buildings and forced more than 1,000 people to flee their homes.

Those fires — which come after low rainfall in winter and spring left the southeast of the country extremely dry — were less intense than before but “not yet under control”, according to Marseille mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin.

Mainland Portugal 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.