Thursday, July 29, 2004 By Dirk Hendricks, Associated Press
CALDAS DO MONCHIQUE, Portugal Firefighters worked Wednesday to contain fires that swept through the southern Algarve province after three days of intense blazes destroyed thousands of acres of forest and protected lands.
The areas affected were Loule, in the southern region of Algarve, and Almodovar, in the southeastern region of Alentejo. By Wednesday afternoon, the fires had massed into one large front and were spreading to the nearby Evora, authorities said.
The mayor of Almodovar, Antonio Sebastiao, told the state news agency, Lusa, he was going to ask that the area be considered a disaster zone after “thousands of hectares of forest and agricultural land and a some houses were lost, causing uncalculable damage.”
In Loule, fires broke out Tuesday afternoon and raged throughout the night. Since dawn, airplanes and helicopters zoomed over the area dumping water on the flames. The fires have destroyed hundreds of hectares (thousands of acres) of eucalyptus and cork tree forests.
“The fire is widespread, the entire countryside north of the town of Loule, about 30 kilometers, is ablaze,” said David Thursfield, a 49-year-old Briton who has been a resident near Loule for 16 years.
“We are surrounded by a layer of ash, smoldering pieces of cork are dropping all around us,” he added. “It is certainly the biggest fire I have seen in this area.”
In other areas in Portugal, more than 1,300 firefighters were battling at nine fires, authorities said.
Last year, fires burned a record five percent of Portugal’s terrain, or 424,000 hectares (1 million acres) and killed 18 people.
So far this summer, the number of fires is higher, but there has been less destruction and authorities hope the fires will subside if temperatures dip by at the end of the week.
Greece, Italy, and Spain agreed on Monday to send planes to the worst-affected areas at Portugal’s request.
Portugal’s air force deployed a Cessna airplane while the army doubled to 500 the number of soldiers assigned to help extinguish the fires.
A massive fire in the Arrabida Natural Park, 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Lisbon, was mostly under control Tuesday. But Portugal’s League for Nature Protection described the devastation at the park, where 700 hectares (1,700 acres) of land have been scorched, as “an irreparable loss for biodiversity and nature.”
Meanwhile, a 40-year-old man was arrested for allegedly starting a fire in the Santarem area of Torres Novas, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Lisbon, that destroyed close to 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres) of agricultural land, mainly olive groves, and 170 hectares (420 acres) of forest in the Serra d’Aires Natural Park on Monday.
Weather forecasts projected temperatures will still top 35 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit) through Thursday but humidity was expected to rise and winds to lessen, perhaps helping firefighters.