AS cooler weather finally rolled over parts of Portugal today, officials said the disastrous fires that have charred vast areas and left 15 people dead were beginning to recede, although 13 blazes were still raging out of control.
Thick fog which rolled across central Portugal early in the day had helped firefighters to bring the number of fires out of control across the nation down, and although new blazes started up they were in general smaller, officials said.
However, during the afternoon strong winds helped fan several new blazes.
Nearly 2600 firefighters and soldiers, backed by 28 water-dropping aircraft including nine planes and helicopters sent from five fellow European Union nations, were battling the flames, it said.
Earlier, firefighters said they had gained the upper hand in their battle against a blaze that raged in woodlands near Coimbra, Portugal’s third-largest city, since Sunday, burning at least 10 homes on the outskirts of the city and forcing the evacuation of dozens of people.
Over 400 firefighters were still at the scene of that fire to guard against flare-ups.
The national weather office predicts the more seasonal temperatures will last until at least the weekend, although with Portugal suffering its worst drought since 1945 officials said the risk of wildfires remained high.
“Air humidity levels and temperatures returned to normal levels for this time of the year,” the governor of the district of Coimbra, Henrique Fernandes, told the Lusa news agency as he explained why the fire was now under control.
Meanwhile, the government vowed to take steps to lower the risk of future fires, notably by changing subsidy rules to encourage the clearing of brush on people’s land.
Agriculture Minister Jaime Silva announced plans to change the rules governing subsidies given to farmers and landowners to ensure that only those who clear their properties of dry bushes and wood can qualify.
“If we don’t change we run the risk of ruining the enormous potential of the Portuguese forests. We have to have the courage to say that things must change,” he said during a visit to a fire-ravaged region in central Portugal.
Forestry experts blame the abandonment of large swathes of forests in the interior as young people have moved to coastal cities and a focus on planting profitable but highly combustible tree species like fast-growing eucalyptus for the large number of wildfires in Portugal.
The problem is compounded by the fact that the country’s roughly 3.3 million hectares of forest are split up among over half a million property owners.
President Jorge Sampaio meanwhile urged the government to take action “against those that do not take care of their forests” during a visit to the headquarters of the civil protection agency in Lisbon which is coordinating the fight against the fires.
A water-dropping plane crashed today while battling a forest fire in central Portugal due to a mechanical failure, slightly injuring its 26-year-old Spanish pilot, hospital officials said.
The fires have killed 15 people, including 10 firefighters, and destroyed more than 100 homes and nearly 500 farm buildings and destroyed at least 180,000 hectares of land so far this year.
Across the border in Spain, meanwhile, 14 fires were still raging in the northwestern region of Galicia, officials said there.