Spain fights ‘forest terrorism’ fires

Spain fights ‘forest terrorism’ fires

9 August 2006

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Galicia, Spain — Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero interrupted his summer holiday Wednesday to visit emergency crews fighting 134 forest fires, many started deliberately in wooded areas of northwestern Spain, officials said.

Mr. Zapatero, who had been on holiday in the Canary Islands, flew to Santiago de Compostela, in the Galicia region, where he was due to spend Wednesday night in areas affected by wildfires, a government spokesman said.

The fires have charred about 100 square kilometres of forest and scrubland, mainly between the port city of Vigo and tourist centre Santiago de Compostela, an area known for its fjord-like sea inlets.

“There’s no doubt we’re faced with a chain of deliberately lit fires, which are making it impossible to act efficiently because every time we put one fire out another is lit almost next to it,” Environment Minister Cristina Narbona told Cadena SER radio onWednesday.

Ms. Narbona, who has described the fires as “forest terrorism,” reiterated a plea for local people to help bring arsonists to justice.

On Tuesday, she said authorities suspected that disgruntled seasonal firefighters who had not been hired this summer could be behind many blazes.

Five people have been arrested on suspicion of starting fires, regional prosecutor Alvaro Garcia Ortiz said. One of the five was ordered to be held in custody on provisional charges pending trial, and another has been released on bail, a police spokesman said.

Firefighters had managed to bring 49 fires under control, but high winds and very dry conditions were fanning another 62 blazes, said spokeswoman Iria Mendez.

The European Commission said Spain had asked member states to send three firefighting Canadair aircraft, five helicopters and 20 fire trucks. France was due to send two firefighting planes, an Environment Ministry official said.

Italy’s civil protection said it would dispatch two Canadair planes and a team of technicians to help fight the forest fires.

The CL415 planes, capable of drenching a blaze with more than 6,000 litres of water or flame-retardant liquid, would leave for Spain Wednesday morning from Rome’s Ciampino airport, the civil protection said in a statement.

The planes were made available following a request by Spain’s civil protection and as part of Europe-wide agreements for mutual assistance, the statement said.

Two wildfires were burning in Girona, on the other side of Spain in the northeast region of Catalonia, where firefighters had deployed eight vehicles.

Neighbouring Portugal, which had originally offered help to Spain, had to redeploy its firefighting forces to battle outbreaks within its own borders, regional authorities in Galicia said.

Forest fires in Spain and other Mediterranean countries char hundreds of thousands of hectares of land every year. Spain’s national and regional governments agreed to step up vigilance after 17 people died in fires last summer.

The number of highly destructive fires – ones that have burned more than one hectare – has dropped from more than 6,200 in 2005 to fewer than 3,000 in 2006 for the January-July period, according to Environment Ministry figures. Fires charred 35,870 hectares, down from 94,450 hectares in 2005, the ministry added.

Authorities credit preventive measures for the drop, including bans on barbecues in the countryside in dry regions and more effective campaigns to clear roadside garbage and fallen leaves and branches in forests.


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