Wed, 11 Dec 2019

Portuguese firefighters were cautiously optimistic Monday that they have largely controlled a massive wildfire in a central region where dozens of people were killed in huge blazes in 2017, but warned that strong winds could cause the remaining flames to spread.

Some 1 200 firefighters backed by five water-dropping planes were deployed to fight the blazes in the heavily forested Castelo Branco region, 200km northeast of the capital Lisbon, the civil protection force said.

The wildfires have been "90% controlled" but winds were expected to pick up in the afternoon, with gusts of up to 35km/h expected which could fan the flames and cause them to spread, the force's spokesperson Pedro Nunes told a news conference in the central town of Serta.

"These are complex conditions to fight fires. We are going to have a complicated day. The wind has been the great motor of this fire," he said, adding the fire is still active "mainly in hard to reach areas".

Smoke from the wildfires was visible from space, satellite images broadcast on Portuguese television showed.

Around 30 people, including eight firefighters, have been injured, mostly from smoke inhalation, from the blaze which broke out on Saturday amid scorching temperatures, according to the interior ministry.

President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa on Sunday visited a badly burned civilian who was evacuated by helicopter to a Lisbon hospital.

In a message, he expressed his "solidarity with the hundreds fighting the scourge of the fires".

Man arrested

While a number of small villages were evacuated as a precaution, officials said they still did not know how many homes were burned by the flames.

Authorities are looking into whether the fires may have been started deliberately, Interior Minister Eduardo Cabrita said on Sunday.

"The cause of the fires is being investigated... there's something strange. How is it that five such large fires broke out in areas that are so close to each other?" he asked.

Police said a 55-year-old man had been arrested in Castelo Branco suspected of setting a fire on the outskirts of the town, though this one was far from the main infernos.

The army dispatched 20 soldiers and machinery to open routes "to facilitate access" for the firefighters.

Seven regions of Portugal were on fire alert on Monday because of the dry weather and high temperatures, which are forecast to hit nearly 40C in Castelo Branco.

'Terror returned'

"Unfortunately terror returned once again. Enough. We are fed up," Ricardo Aires, the mayor of the municipality of Vila de Rei which was badly affected by the wildfires, told public television RTP.

The centre of Portugal is hilly and covered in dense forest and is regularly ravaged by fires, including the deadliest in the country's history when 114 people died in two separate blazes in June and October 2017.

Much of the population in the area is elderly, as young people move to the cities.

The forests are largely eucalyptus, a highly flammable wood used in the paper industry.

Despite the combustion risks, the trees are planted because they are fast-growing and a major source of income for locals.

With fields and pastures abandoned, the forests are poorly maintained, and the dense undergrowth facilitates the spread of the fires.

According to the EU's European Forest Fire Information System, more than 250 000 hectares of land was destroyed by fire across Europe between January and April this year, compared with 181 000 hectares recorded for the entire fire season in 2018.

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