Spain — Spain’s prime minister broke off his holiday Sunday to inspect the devastation caused by forest fires raging on an island in the Canaries which have forced thousands to flee their homes.
In Greece meanwhile, firefighters supported by water-dropping planes were battling forest fires in the southern Peloponnese peninsula and the northeast region of Kavala.
The two countries have been among the worst hit by wildfires that have swept across southern Europe in the past two weeks amid sizzling temperatures and fierce winds.
Around 500 firefighters, forest rangers and soldiers fought the flames on Spain’s small holiday island of La Palma and planes dumped water in an effort to bring the blazes under control.
Fanned by strong winds, the fires have now destroyed between 1,500 and 2,000 hectares (3,700 to 4,900 acres) of pine forest and dozens of homes since they broke out Friday night, local authorities said.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who began his summer holiday Sunday on the Canary island of Lanzarote, flew to La Palma later in the day where he visited one of the areas affected.
He described the fires as “serious” and admitted Spain is “having a very difficult summer in the fight against fire.”
He also pledged financial help for those who have lost their homes in La Palma.
The fire there was spreading on two fronts, down from three fronts on Saturday when the fast-moving inferno forced some 4,000 people to evacuate their homes.
The wind direction also changed and was now blowing against the progress of the fire, local authorities said, adding that they hoped to bring the blaze under control on Sunday.
In addition, one of the two fronts was heading towards a sparsely forested area of volcanic rock, which would act as a natural firewall, they said.
But one blaze close to the southeastern town of Mazo remained out of control.
“I hope that the wind will help us so that the air and land (fire) services can contain it,” said Mazo’s mayor, Francisco Javier Gonzalez.
He said the change in the weather since Saturday has already slowed the advance of the flames.
La Palma, home to some 85,000 people, is the fifth largest of the seven islands in the Canaries archipelago, which is located in the Atlantic off the coast of Morocco and is a popular tourist destination.
ut the volcanic island is relatively undeveloped compared with some of its neighbours, such as the islands of Gran Canaria and Tenerife.
Meanwhile, authorities in Spain’s northeastern region of Aragon said fires that erupted Saturday near the town of Calatayud were under control Sunday evening.
Police have arrested two people in connection with that blaze, which destroyed some 720 hectares of forest.
Since the start of this year, fires have ravaged some 75,000 hectares of land in Spain, almost double the number for the whole of 2008. Of that, some 45,000 hectares have been destroyed in the past two weeks.
Eight people, six of them firefighters, have died in the fires on the Spanish mainland since last month.
Spain lost 155,000 hectares to fire in 2005 and another 188,000 hectares in 2006 but was spared major wildfire damage in the past two years, the exception being the Canaries which suffered major blazes in 2007.
In Greece, four planes, one helicopter, 11 vehicles and 46 firefighters battled a pine forest fire on Sunday as strong winds fanned the flames in a hard-to-reach area on the Peloponnese’s Menalon mountain, the fire service said.
The Menalon mountain was among the hardest-hit regions during the 2007 fires that left 77 people dead and destroyed more than 250,000 hectares of land, mostly in the Peloponnese peninsula.
The civil protection agency raised the fire-risk alert to its second highest level in several parts of Greece including Athens due to high temperatures reaching 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit), drought and strong winds.