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Villages evacuated as Portugal forest fires worsen

Five Portuguese mountain villages were evacuated overnight as forest fires intensified in the country’s north and centre, officials said Wednesday.

“If the police hadn’t got me out of the house, I would have died in the flames,” said Maria Fernandes, 66, a villager from Bracal in the Caramulo mountains, located north of Lisbon.

A pine forest that lies among the mountains was engulfed in flames as 425 firefighters, a helicopter and two French planes dropping water tackled the blaze.

The same fire has already claimed the lives of two firefighters in the last week, bringing the total killed in August to four, and burnt with renewed vigour Thursday aided by strong winds.

“The situation has got worse. We have to stop the fire reaching the villages at all cost,” said Miguel Cruz, a spokesman for Portugal’s Civil Protection Authority.

Residents of Bracal spoke of their terror as the flames approached. “It was hell. I wouldn’t wish for anyone to have to live through the same situation,” said Maria de Lurdes Cardoso, 64, one of the last to be evacuated with her husband.

As many as 1,400 firefighters were dispatched Thursday to tackle the blaze in the mountains and another raging further north in the national park of Alvao, where 2,000 hectares (4,900 acres) of pine forest have already been destroyed, according to the local mayor.

Humberto Cerqueira, mayor of Mondim de Basto, 20km from the park, said the scenes were “something out of Dante”.

“All the natural wealth has been destroyed,” he said, decimating tourism in the area and local income from resin extraction, used in varnishes and adhesives.

The French government promised Wednesday to allow two planes dispatched earlier this week to aid the relief effort to remain in Portugal until September 3.

Almost 31,000 hectares have been destroyed by fire in Portugal this year, according to its Institute for the Conservation of Nature and Forests.