Portuguese firefighters said yesterday that they had largely controlled a massive wildfire in a central region where dozens of people were killed in huge blazes in 2017, but warned that strong winds could cause the remaining flames to spread.
Some 1,200 firefighters backed by four water-dropping planes were deployed to fight the wind-driven blazes in the heavily-forested Castelo Branco region, 200km northeast of the capital Lisbon, the civil protection force said.
Stickers on their trucks showed they came from across the country.
The wildfires have been “90% controlled” but winds were expected to pick up in the afternoon, with gusts of up to 35kph expected which could fan the flames and cause them to spread, the force’s spokesman Pedro Nunes told a news conference in the central town of Serta.
“We are breathing easier but we have some reservations,” he said, adding the firefighters were now in hard to reach areas where the flames were still active.
Smoke from the wildfires was visible from space, satellite images broadcast on Portuguese television showed.
Around 30 people, including eight firefighters, have been injured, mostly from smoke inhalation, from the blaze which broke out on Saturday amid scorching temperatures.
President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa on Sunday visited a badly-burned civilian who was evacuated by helicopter to a Lisbon hospital.
Local residents, many wearing masks, scrambled to protect their homes using garden houses and buckets of water.
“My house didn’t burn because I was here. Otherwise, it would have burned,” 69-year-old Adriano Dias Silva told AFP in the village of Roda.
While a number of small villages were evacuated as a precaution, officials said they still did not know how many homes were burned by the flames.
Authorities are looking into whether the fires may have been started deliberately as several blazes broke out at roughly the same time near each other, Interior Minister Eduardo Cabrita said on Sunday.
Police said a 55-year-old man had been arrested in Castelo Branco suspected of setting a fire on the outskirts of the town, though this one was far from the main infernos.
The army dispatched 20 soldiers and machinery to open routes “to facilitate access” for the firefighters.
Seven regions of Portugal were on fire alert yesterday because of the dry weather and high temperatures, which are forecast to hit nearly 40° Celsius (104° Fahrenheit) in Castelo Branco.
The centre of Portugal is hilly and covered in dense forest and is regularly ravaged by fires, including the deadliest in the country’s history when 114 people died in two separate blazes in June and October 2017.
Much of the population in the area is elderly, as young people move to the cities.
The forests are largely eucalyptus, a highly flammable wood used in the paper industry.
Despite the combustion risks, the trees are planted because they are fast-growing and a major source of income for locals.
With fields and pastures abandoned, the forests are poorly maintained, and the dense undergrowth facilitates the spread of the fires.
Portugal is better equipped to deal with wildfires since the deadly blazes two years ago, with more means and better “technical training”, Nunes of civil protection force said.
“There is a before and after 2017,” the official said.
According to the EU’s European Forest Fire Information System, more than 250,000 hectares of land was destroyed by fire across Europe between January and April this year, compared with 181,000 hectares recorded for the entire fire season in 2018.