Firefighters battle forest fires in Spain

Firefighters battle forest fires in Spain

25 January 2009

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Spain — Hundreds of firefighters battled forest fires in northeastern Spain on Sunday that were sparked by violent winds in weekend storms that left 12 people dead.

The largest fire scorched 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres) of land in the Valencia region, while two other blazes ate up around 145 hectares in Catalonia and another part of Valencia, a firefighters spokesman and local officials said.

The fires were under control by Sunday evening after the winds calmed down, allowing firefighting planes to douse the flames.

The largest fire was believed to have been sparked by electricity pylons brought down by hurricane-force winds, leaving thousands of Spaniards without power.

At least 12 people, including four children, lost their lives to the extreme weather, which also tore through parts of France, killing eight there.

An updated toll was revealed by Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, although there were no details as to the 12th death.

“Yet again, the forecasts were a bit off. We well understand, forecasts are close — but not always exact,” Rubalcaba told AFP.

During a speech in the Spain’s northern Basque region, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero expressed his “solidarity and commitment to help those families” affected by the storms, while the main opposition group, the People’s Party, held a minute’s silence as a mark of respect to those who died.

The mayor of Sant Boi de Llobregat, near Barcelona, declared three days of mourning for the four children who were killed after winds up to 150 kilometres (95 miles) per hour brought down part of a sports hall.

Nine others were injured in the collapse.

“The entire population is shocked by this tragedy, one of the worst experienced in Sant Boi. We are all very moved,” Mayor Jaume Bosch said on the town hall’s website.

The funerals for the victims are to be held Monday morning, a town hall spokesman said.

Saturday night, players from footballing giant Barcelona and Numancia observed a minute of silence for the victims of the violent storm before facing off in a Spanish league match.

Spanish basketball star Pau Gasol, who hails from Sant Boi, said the incident was a “huge blow” to the local community.

“It’s inexplicable that such a tragedy could happen to children while playing sport,” said Gasol, who plays in the NBA for the Los Angeles Lakers.

The building’s collapse is being investigated, but there is little doubt the winds caused it, a regional government spokeswoman told AFP.

Witnesses said they heard a loud sound, then saw that the roof and part of a wall had crumpled.

“When we went inside it was just horrific,” Jose Antonio Gordina, whose son narrowly escaped the collapse, told El Mundo newspaper.

“We heard a very loud noise and thought a tree had fallen on a house roof. When we got there the ceiling of the hall had literally been torn off and the wall fell onto the kids,” he said.

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