Canary Islands, Spain — Residents and officials of the Canary Islands onThursday surveyed the charred aftermath of devastating forest fires that ragedacross there in recent days, burning homes and destroying thousands of hectaresof pine forest that are home to some of the islands’ unique wildlife.
Most of the 13,000 people evacuated from their homes on Tenerife and GranCanaria, the sites of the biggest fires, had returned by Thursday evening, someof them to find their houses or businesses reduced to blackened shells.
“In the recorded history of our islands, we have never seen a naturalcatastrophe of these proportions – it has been a real nightmare,” JoséMiguel Pérez, head of the regional government of Gran Canaria, said bytelephone.
Firefighting teams were dousing the smoldering ground on the two islands inthe hope of putting out the final flames of the archipelago’s most devastatingblaze in 50 years. They said they would continue to soak the ground for severaldays.
Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero visited the islands onWednesday and plans to hold an emergency cabinet meeting Friday to approvefinancial aid for hundreds of Canary Islanders whose homes and businesses weredamaged or who are now out of work.
Fed by high winds and unseasonable temperatures, the blaze affected anestimated 20,000 hectares, or about 50,000 acres, on Gran Canaria and 15,000hectares on Tenerife.
Aurelio Abreu, the mayor of Buenavista del Norte, a municipality of Tenerife,said the flames had turned a place of great natural beauty and architecturalheritage into a smoldering landscape of gray.
The 150 or so inhabitants of Masca, a hamlet of historic buildings, werestill camping out in a sports pavilion after their village was hit by a “hugewave of heat and fire,” he said.
“It’s desolate – everything is completely gray,” Abreu told CadenaSer, a national radio station.
“But tomorrow it will be less gray – nature is very strong.”
Naturalists studying an endangered bird, the blue chaffinch, on Gran Canaria,said the pine forests that were its habitat burned like kindling.
The islands are home to about 2,000 native species of plants and animals,according to the tourist board. They are also a trove of unique flora and faunathat drew the attention of Charles Darwin in the 19th century.
There were only about 150 of the blue chaffinch before the blazes, accordingto El País, but Pérez said a breeding center would help replenish the stock.
Despite the grim picture, officials emphasized Thursday that the fires hadnot affected the tourist spots that draw millions of visitors each year andrepresent more than half the islands’ income. Nine million tourists visited theseven islands last year, according to the tourist board.
“The Canary Islands are an amazing place for tourists to visit, and thathasn’t been affected,” José Segura, the central government’srepresentative in the Canaries, said in a telephone interview.
Ricardo Melchior, head of the regional authority of Tenerife, said members ofthe civil guard, a local police force, had found a device they believe had beenused to start the fire in Tenerife and had a list of arson suspects.
An unemployed forest ranger has already confessed to starting the fire inGran Canaria to protest a decision against renewing his work contract, accordingto The Associated Press.
Officials and representatives of firefighting teams dismissed suggestionsthat they had mismanaged the blaze or failed to invest enough in protectingagainst fires.
“We could have had all the resources in the world,” Pérez said,”but with winds that fast and flames that big, we would not have been ableto do more.”
The forest fires in Europe last month were some of the worst on record asdrought across Southern Europe turned woods into tinder, the European Commissionsaid Thursday, The Associated Press reported from Brussels.
About 3,376 square kilometers, or 1,300 square miles, of forest have alreadyburned this year, compared with the 3,585 square kilometers that burned all oflast year, the commission said. The commission, the executive arm of theEuropean Union, was quoting provisional figures from its European forest fireinformation system.
“It shows that July 2007 was one of the worst months on record and theworst July we have experienced since we started keeping and pooling informationat European level,” said Antonia Mochan, an EU spokeswoman.