PORTUGAL: July 30, 2004 LISBON, Portugal – Hundreds of firefighters battled forest fires nationwide Wednesday amid fears of another inferno like the one that blackened Portugal last year But the prime minister fended off criticism that the government had not sufficiently improved its firefighting equipment after last year’s fires killed at least 18 people. More than 400 firefighters were tackling blazes at five sites throughout the Iberian nation, the national emergency center said. In the worst-hit area, firefighters backed by a military helicopter and water-bombing aircraft battled fires in hills near Silves, about 120 miles south of Lisbon in the Algarve tourist mecca. “The wind is changing direction from time to time and that brings the problems of fires springing up again. Things are getting better but not enough to make us relax,” Silves Mayor Isabel Soares told private TSF radio. Greece has sent two air tankers and Italy has sent one to help tackle the fires, according to the Lusa news agency. The opposition has criticized the government for failing to acquire enough firefighting aircraft, leaving it reliant on larger EU countries for help. But new Prime Minister Pedro Santana Lopes said leftist critics were ignoring other safety precautions introduced since last year’s fires which burned 13 percent of forests. “They only ask if I am satisfied. I am not, and the country should not be satisfied,” Santana Lopes told parliament. Portugal lost 68,000 acres of forest and woodlands in 10,000 fires in the year to July 18, according to forest service figures. The area burned is around the annual average for the previous five years, but the number of fires is higher. Duarte Caldeira, head of the 35,000-strong League of Portuguese Firefighters, said poor forest management meant they were often littered with deadwood and trash that fueled fires. He said fires were usually fought by volunteers who lacked suitable vehicles, helmets or oxygen masks. “We will be close to the same situation we had last year,” he said.