European aircraft help battle Portugal forest fires

European aircraft help battle Portugal forest fires

24 August 2005


MIRANDA DO CORVO: Water-dumping aircraft from around Europe battled to help drought-hit Portugal contain raging forest fires that have killed at least 14 people.

BIG BURN: Water-dumping aircraft from around Europe battled to help drought-hit Portugal contain raging forest fires that have killed at least 14 people.

Firefighters and soldiers evacuated small hamlets as the fires burnt out of control. As hot winds blew down the valleys of central Portugal, a blaze near the town of Miranda do Corvo flared up, threatening several hamlets.

“I have been a fireman for 37 years and have never seen anything like this,” fire services commander Carlos Amaral said.

A few minutes earlier, five firefighters and a few soldiers rushed around to nearby houses to douse them with water in an effort to save them from the advancing flames. The blaze moved on over a ridge, leaving cinders in its path.

Three German Puma helicopters, carrying water, flew in to help but were unable to fly during the night.

“My God, I don’t know how far this will burn, we can only wait until tomorrow,” Amaral said. “We just tried to save the houses.”

France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands have also sent aircraft to help douse the flames, after Portugal’s government asked the European Union for help at the weekend.

Miranda do Corvo was one of the worst hit areas, when around 2300 firefighters fought a dozen blazes in central and northern Portugal. Fire services said it was one of the worst forest fire seasons in decades.

Miranda is near the ancient university city of Coimbra, about 180km north of Lisbon.

In Foz do Caneiro, a small village in the region, worried residents watched as two helicopters hovered over the Mondego River to collect water, then roared off to battle nearby fires.

“It was an inferno here yesterday, we were surrounded by fire. We’re still scared that the fires will flare up again and reach us,” Dorinda Veiga, a middle-aged woman, said.


Lusa news agency reported that least 14 people had died during forest fires this year, 10 of them firefighters. A civilian was killed on Monday when he was struck by a fire lorry while helping tackle a blaze.

Firefighters also found the burnt body of an elderly woman but it was unclear if the flames had killed her, Lusa said.

Vitor Silva, head of the fire-fighting volunteers of Coimbra, said that because of the severe drought in most of Portugal, this year’s fires were worse than in 2003.

“There is no flammable material that can resist going up in flames in this drought,” Silva said. “I have done this for 30 years and it only gets worse, fire fighters are dying.”

The forest service estimated last week that about 134,500 hectares had burnt this year, well above the annual average since 1980.

Companies and government officials say it is too early to estimate the cost of the fires, which have destroyed dozens of homes and damaged hundreds of farms.

The Agriculture Ministry said the damage was not bad enough for Portugal to draw on the EU Solidarity Fund, used in cases of natural disaster. For access, damage must top 3 billion euros ($NZ5.25 billion) or 0.6 per cent of GDP – about 800 million euros.

Paper company Portucel, Portugal’s biggest owner of forests, said it had suffered serious losses, but did not give details. The pulp and paper sector makes up about 10 per cent of Portugal’s exports.

In Galicia, northwest Spain, firefighters were battling blazes that have destroyed 18,500 hectares of forest this month. The worst of eight fires was threatening the city of Carnota, mayor Manuel Martinez told state radio. 


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