Portugal struggles to control wildfires

Firefighting aircraft from Germany, Italy and The Netherlands headed to Portugal on Monday as the country struggled to contain its biggest wave of wildfires to hit so far this year amid rising temperatures.

More than 2 700 firefighters were battling dozens of wildfires, including 27 that raced out of control across tinder-dry forests and threatened some built-up areas, already forcing dozens of people to be evacuated near Portugal’s third-largest city.

Forecasters, meanwhile, predicted temperatures would soar above a scorching 35 degrees Celsius in some areas.

Two Canadair water-dropping planes from France and one from neighbouring Spain that arrived on Sunday joined in the battle against the flames for the first time, the civil protection agency said.

But the three helicopters expected from Germany, along with 25 anti-fire specialists, and one water-dropping aircraft due from Italy will not be deployed until Tuesday because they will arrive too close to sundown, it said.

Two firefighting helicopters sent by The Hague are also due to arrive on Tuesday, officials in the Dutch capital said.

Portugal appealed for help from its fellow European Union member states on Saturday after the number of blazes raging out of control in the country rose above 50, the highest single day tally so far this year.

The government of Portugal’s mid-Atlantic verdant Azores archipelago, meanwhile, offered to send 25 firefighters to the mainland to help tame the flames, which were threatening built-up areas.

Dozens of people were evacuated overnight from suburban Coimbra, Portugal’s third-largest city, because of the threat from the approach of a fast-moving wall of fire, local officials said.

At least 12 houses were destroyed by the flames in the central city before a change in wind direction moved the fire in another direction, said the governor of the district of Coimbra, Henrique Fernandes.

“We are still in shock because of this fire which reached into our city,” he told news radio TSF after inspecting the damage done by the blaze by air.

Thick smoke from the blaze still choked the air in Coimbra and firefighters were on guard against the possibility of flare-ups in the charred areas near the city, he added.

The largest single deployment of firefighters is around the central town of Portel, where 176 people backed by 55 vehicles are battling a fire that has five active fronts, the civil protection agency said.

The wildfires come as Portugal faces its worst drought since 1945. The dry spell has dried reservoirs and led to water restrictions in many places.

The Forest Fire Prevention Agency placed all but two of the nation’s 18 administrative districts on “maximum” or “very high” alert for wildfires on Monday because of the heat and drought conditions.

Speaking on French radio, Interior Minister Antonio Costa said Europe should combine its resources in fighting fires, notably by jointly building specialised water-bombing aircraft.

“It is essential to pool our resources because we have fires in Portugal, but tomorrow there could be others in Spain, in Italy, in Greece,” Costa told French radio station Europe 1.

His comments echoed those of French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who on Sunday also called for Europe to establish a joint firefighting force.

Ten firefighters have died so far this year battling blazes in Portugal, which have already destroyed 134 500ha of land this year—more than in all of 2004 when just less than 130 000ha burned.—Sapa-AFP

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