MIRANDA DO CORVO — A thick, cooling fog rolled into central Portugal on Wednesday, aiding firefighters weary from battling forest blazes but hindering water-dumping aircraft sent to help put out thefires.
Exhausted fire crew welcomed the moisture and lack of wind as advantages in fighting the blazes.
“We’re hoping the fog will put it out,” one firefighter, filthy from smoke and dirt, told Reuters.
Five fires were raging out of control, the national fire service said. The biggest stretched over 21 km (13 miles) near Mirando do Corvo, a mountain town about 180 km (110 miles) north of the capital Lisbon.
Portugal, one of the poorest members of the European Union, is suffering its worst drought on record. The forest service estimated last week that about 134,500 hectares (337,000 acres) of woodland had burned this year, well above the annual average since 1980.
Thick fog rolled in before dawn at Miranda do Corvo, hampering Canadair water bombers sent by France and Italy to aid hundreds of firefighters who have fought the conflagration since Sunday.
“Obviously this combination of fog and smoke is going to hinder the use of aircraft,” a fire service spokeswoman said.
Mario Lourenco, head of volunteer firefighters from the town of Condeixa battling a blaze near Miranda do Corvo, said the cooler, calmer weather and more equipment had helped the fight.
“That doesn’t mean the situation is under control,” he told private TSF radio. “We’re going to have faith and have hope that there will be no wind, because in fact the wind has improved.”
The weather service forecast clear skies and lower temperatures for Portugal, with highs of around 27 Celsius (81 Fahrenheit) for the nearby city of Coimbra.
Although the fires have devastated vast areas of woodland, damage to homes and businesses has been limited. When firefighters cannot control a fire, they retreat to nearby hamlets and put up walls of water to save property.
Joao Carmona, 54, said he and his nephews had fled his nearby vacation home to take refuge at a Mirando do Corvo hotel.
“We came here (to the hotel) because of the children. It was four in the afternoon and we were told they (firefighters) were going to cut the road to our house,” the 54-year-old Lisbon resident said.
The Agriculture Ministry has said fire damage is not bad enough for Portugal to draw on the European Union’s Solidarity Fund, used in cases of natural disaster. For access, damage must top 3 billion euros or 0.6 percent of gross domestic product — about 800 million euros for Portugal.
The world’s largest reinsurers, Munich Re <MUVGn.DE> and Swiss Re <RUKN.VX>, which insure insurance companies against catastrophe, told Reuters on Wednesday they did not anticipate any large claims from the fires. (Additional reporting by Ian Simpson in Lisbon, Simon Challis in London)