Spain –-MADRID – At least two thousand people have been evacuated from Spain’s popular tourist region of Valencia as the worst forest fires in more than a decade raged out of control, causing a huge cloud of ash to pour into the country’s third-largest city.
Media reports on Sunday said between 20,000 and 45,000 hectares (49,400 to 111,200 acres) of land had been destroyed in two forest fires around 30 kilometers (18 miles) to the west of Valencia on Spain’s eastern coast.
No official estimates have been given of how much land has been destroyed by the fires, but NASA images show smoke covering a vast area of the region famous for its beaches.
The majority of people in the Valencia region were not at risk, according to emergency services. The city’s airport was still operating and it was not known how many tourists were affected by the fires.
Spain’s tourism sector represents around 10 percent of the country’s economic output, and has been one of the few drivers of growth as the economy slides back into a heavy recession.
Authorities in the Valencia region told Reuters that in the three days since the fires started around 2,000 people have been forced to leave their homes, though many have since been able to return.
The fires, which are still not under control, began after a week in which temperatures in many parts of Spain soared to close to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), leading authorities to raise to maximum the level of forest fire risk in the Valencia region.
Authorities said preliminary investigations showed one of the fires had been accidentally started by workers in the hillsides around Valencia, and the other by agricultural burning that could not be controlled.
The country has seen 10 big forest fires this year, and around 50,000 hectares of land destroyed in the first five months of 2012, the worst since 2002, according to data from the Environment Ministry.