Europe beats back wildfires, fears revival

 Europe beats back wildfires, fears revival

27 July 2009

published by AFP

Firefighters gained the upper hand against deadly wildfires across southern Europe but warned on Monday that the flames could flare up again with sizzling temperatures and strong winds forecast.

In France, Italy and Spain — the worst affected countries — most of the blazes were extinguished or under control although firefighters remained on alert.

Spain’s Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said 90 percent of the country was on “maximum alert” for wildfires because of tinder-dry conditions.

“We are facing a bad day because of the heat and wind,” he told reporters.

The national weather office issued an “orange” alert, its second-highest level, for eight Spanish provinces due to scorching temperatures of up to 41 degrees Celsius (106 degrees Fahrenheit).

The continued threat posed by weather conditions was underscored near the Spanish town of Las Hurdes where a blaze thought to be under control flared up overnight due to strong winds, forcing the evacuation of over 500 people.

More than 400 firefighters backed by 13 helicopters and four planes were battling the blaze, which has so far ravaged some 500 hectares (1,200 acres) of pine forest and brush and which local officials believe was deliberately set.

“It is not possible that new flare-ups of the fire arise at the same time at three different places, nobody can understand it,” said the regional government chief of Extremadura, Guillermo Fernandez Vara.

In Greece firefighters took control of a blaze on the island of Zakynthos (Zante) that led coast guards to evacuate about 50 people from a beach late Sunday, although the region remained at risk from strong winds.

French firefighters battled a blaze which has destroyed 3,500 hectares (8,650 acres) of forest and bush since Thursday near Aullene on the Mediterranean island of Corsica.

They poured tonnes of water from aircraft and scoured vegetation from the earth to halt the advance of the flames.

“The fire has been stabilised,” but strong winds were forecast for Tuesday, fire service commander Bruno Maestracci told AFP.

“When the fire advances at high speed as it did up to Saturday, not all the vegetation gets destroyed, and that can lead to a revival” of the flames, he warned.

Two Corsican farmers, aged 21 and 24, were sentenced Monday to prison terms after admitting to setting five fires in three villages in the Rapale area.

In Italy fires that claimed two lives last week on the island of Sardinia were largely under control Monday, while a blaze in a nature reserve in Sicily was still active, the civil protection service said.

Between 15,000 and 25,000 hectares (37,000 and 61,800 acres) of land have been devastated by the flames and, on Sardinia, initial estimates put property damage at around 80 million euros (114 million dollars).

In Spain wildfires have over the past week devastated over 20,000 hectares (49,400 acres) of land, killed six firefighters and gutted dozens of homes.

In the northeastern region of Aragon, the worst affected with more than 11,700 hectares (29,000 acres) lost to flames over the past week, three fires were under control and firefighters were on the verge of getting the upper hand on three other active blazes, a regional government spokesman said.

Spain has already lost more land to wildfires so far this year than during all of 2008 when around 40,000 hectares (98,800 acres) burned, according to environment ministry figures.

Meanwhile across the Mediterranean in Algeria, firefighters have tamed wildfires which have ravaged thousands of hectares (acres) of wheat and barley and thousands of fruit trees since Wednesday, officials said.

The fires had been fueled by temperatures which soared to 47 degrees Celsius (116 Fahrenheit) in some parts of the north African country but which have since eased slightly.

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