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article imagePortugal struggles to put out Algarve wildfire

By Jerome Pin (AFP)     Aug 8, 2018 in World

Wildfires scorched across Portugal's southern Algarve region on Wednesday, threatening more villages as the country's prime minister warned the blaze could burn for days before being brought under control.

Over 1,400 firefighters and soldiers were battling the blaze around the mountain spa town of Monchique in one of Europe's top tourist destinations.

They were backed up by 13 water-dropping aircraft that scooped water from the sea at nearby beach resorts to battle the flames which were scorching a path towards more villages.

Sweltering temperatures and strong winds kindled blazes that have whipped across the region as the Europe-wide heatwave sent the mercury above 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) in some areas of Portugal at the weekend.

But while winds eased in the morning, they picked up in the afternoon as temperatures rose and air humidity levels dropped, leading Prime Minister Antonio Costa to predict it would rage "during the coming days".

"We should have no illusions that this fire will be put out in the coming hours. The next windows of opportunity that we have (to control the fire) will be at night, and dawn and early morning," he told journalists in Lisbon during a visit to the firefighter command centre.

The fires have left 32 people injured, one seriously, and forced hundreds from their homes as the flames encircled urban areas in the popular holiday region, while British and other tourists were evacuated over the weekend from a luxury hotel in Monchique.

- 'Ash and soot' -

Firefighters try to extinguish a wildfire near Monchique  in Portugal's Algarve region  one of ...
Firefighters try to extinguish a wildfire near Monchique, in Portugal's Algarve region, one of Europe's top tourist destinations
CARLOS COSTA, AFP

One front of the blaze was moving steadily towards the town of Silves, which is just 10 kilometres (six miles) inland and there were fears that it could spread towards the coastal city of Portimao, which is popular with British and German tourists.

"The sky has been filled with this sort of black haze and it is ash and soot," Tony Sanders, a 73-year-old Briton who owns a small bed and breakfast in the seaside resort of Carvoeiro some 30 kilometres south of Monchique, told AFP.

"You smell this acrid wood in the atmosphere all the time and it sort of gets you in the back of the throat. The problem with ash is that some of it can still be alight and it can start a fire anywhere."

The difficulty in bringing the fires under control has raised doubt on the effectiveness of measures taken by the Portuguese authorities to avoid a repetition of fires that killed at least 114 people last year.

Firefighters have criticised the lack of coordination, while Costa has drawn flak on social media for remaining on holiday as the flames raged.

On Tuesday Costa released pictures of himself on the phone and sitting at a computer in Twitter posts saying he was monitoring events closely, but some critics turned these into memes depicting him playing video games instead.

- Combustible crop -

The wildfire has charred over 21,000 hectares (52,000 acres) of forest and destroyed several homes.

A picture of Portugal  where a fire is raging  taken by German astronaut Alexander Gerst from the In...
A picture of Portugal, where a fire is raging, taken by German astronaut Alexander Gerst from the International Space Station
Alexander GERST, EUROPEAN SPACE AGENCY/AFP

Around 250 people were evacuated on Monday evening from villages around Monchique, which is located in the mountain range of the same name, around 160 kilometres (100 miles) south of Lisbon, but 70 people have since been allowed to return home.

The mountain range has since the 1970s been used to plant eucalyptus trees, a cash crop whose roots dry up underground water. The sap of eucalyptus trees is also highly flammable, which makes the area vulnerable to wildfires.

Map locating fires around Monchique in Portugal
Map locating fires around Monchique in Portugal
Vincent LEFAI, AFP/File

In 2003 a fire in the same mountain range scorched 41,000 hectares. Another fire in 2016 that raged for tens days burned 3,745 hectares.

Meanwhile in the Valencia region of neighbouring Spain some 3,000 people were driven from their homes to escape flames from a blaze that broke out on Monday and has so far swept across around 2,900 hectares.

Nearly 700 firefighters backed by 27 aircraft were battling the blaze which was nearing the coastal resort of Gandia, local officials said.

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