Firefighters in Portugal Quell Most Flames, Two New Fires Ablaze

Cooler temperatures helped firefighters bring most of Portugal's devastating wildfires under control Thursday, although seven small new blazes broke out in the afternoon, authorities said.


LISBON, Portugal (AP) -- Cooler temperatures helped firefighters bring most of Portugal's devastating wildfires under control Thursday, although seven small new blazes broke out in the afternoon, authorities said.

Dozens of fires have destroyed swathes of forest and farmland over the past few weeks, killing 15 people and forcing hundreds to be evacuated from their homes.

Nearly 2,000 firefighters managed to extinguish four large blazes in the central and northern districts of Santarem, Viseu, Vila Real and Viana do Castelo on Thursday morning.

But seven new fires had broken out by Thursday afternoon in the districts of Santarem, Vila Real, Braga, Leiria and Castelo Branco. Two of those _ one in the Vila Real village of Viluedo and one in Castelo Branco _ were quickly put out, firefighters said.

Altogether, 1,097 firefighters, supported by 296 trucks, 16 firefighting planes and 600 troops were patrolling the country to monitor the situation and ensure new fires were quickly extinguished.

About 1,000 civil servants were given government approval Thursday afternoon to leave their jobs temporarily and go fight the blazes.

Police have arrested about 126 people on suspicion of arson since the beginning of the year, compared to 80 for all of last year.

On Thursday, police said they arrested a 24-year-old bricklayer for allegedly starting one of several fronts to a massive fire in the central Coimbra district. Hundreds of firefighters were mobilized to fight the flames, which last week burned through more than 10 houses and forced the evacuation of more than 100 people.

The arson suspect had no criminal record and had allegedly acted on ''futile intents,'' police said, without elaborating.

Despite the dip in temperatures, weather services forecast highs to reach 34 degrees Celsius (93 Fahrenheit) in some parts of the country.

Wildfires have killed 15 people in Portugal this year, 11 of them firefighters.

Firefighting crews from the Azores and Madeira flew to the mainland during the week to help quell the flames.

''It's our turn to help, after the mainland has helped us in the past with our earthquakes and such,'' head firefighter Jose Gabriel told newspaper Jornal de Noticias.

In many districts, families that had been evacuated were returning to charred, devastated landscapes. Some lost all their possessions.

''It's all gone,'' said one farmer on SIC TV, clutching his small son's hand as he stood next to the remains of his barn containing dozens of sacks of stored cereal and all his agricultural machines.

Little or no rain has fallen on Portugal in the last 10 months, leaving the country in the grip of a severe drought that has helped fires to spread. At least 75 percent of the territory is suffering the most extreme level of drought on a four-stage scale, the Water Institute says.

Dry and yellow landscapes have replaced green pastures, leaving thousands of animals without food and forcing farmers to buy fodder and hay from abroad at high prices.

Although France has been selling hay to Portugal at reduced prices, farmers must meet the cost of transport and have complained the state has not offered them financial assistance in this matter.

Farmers in the southern districts of Alentejo were starting their grape harvest one month early to try to salvage whatever grapes were left after months of intense heat and dry weather. ''I have done this for years and never in my life have I started harvesting in August,'' an Alentejo farmer told SIC TV.

On Tuesday, the president of the National Authority for Forest Fires, Ferreira do Amaral, estimated that fires had burned through 180,000 hectares (445,000 acres) so far, more than the total area burned last year - 129,652 hectares (320,370 acres). In 2003 - the worst for wildfires in the last two decades - fire consumed 425,000 hectares (1 million acres).

The economic impact of the recent fires has not yet been evaluated.

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