Firefighters gain upper hand

2009-07-26 22:08
Rome - Firefighters battled blazes in five countries along the northern Mediterranean rim on Sunday, slowly gaining the upper hand after an exhausting week during which eight people were killed.

Tens of thousands of hectares of countryside have been devastated mainly in Italy, Spain, France and Greece with initial estimates suggesting that the insurance bill may already run into hundreds of millions of dollars.

New fires started in some of the worst hit areas on Sunday, also in Croatia, with the latest again blamed on arson following recriminations over criminal fire-starting elsewhere.

Wildfires

On the scorched Italian island of Sardinia, as much as 25 000ha have been razed by a flaming inferno fanned by high temperatures and an extra-strong Mistral, a fast and dry northerly wind.

Luciano Massetti of Italy's civil protection corps said that since early on Sunday his teams had been called out on eight occasions to fight wildfires - a marked decrease from some 40 call-outs just on Saturday.

Four were on Sardinia, with the others on the neighbouring Mediterranean island of Sicily, in Calabria and the southern Basilicata region. The damage in Sardinia alone is estimated at about $115m.

Ten specialist water-dropping planes, including two Canadairs sent in by the European Union, were trying to douse the flames with volunteers helping to rake through the embers of destroyed local livelihoods.

Disrupt

In Spain, dozens of firefighters backed by two water-dropping aircraft were battling a blaze that broke out on Sunday on farmland near the airport at Palma de Mallorca in the Balearic Islands, local officials said.

The wildfire was threatening several homes but did not disrupt air travel at the airport, Spain's third-busiest in terms of passenger traffic, they said.

Six firefighters have already died in Spain tackling infernos that changed course with sudden ferocity. The interior ministry said earlier that officials remained on maximum alert with about 20 000ha reduced to smouldering ash.

Planes

In Croatia, the island of Ciovo, off the coastal town of Split, was the latest to be hit, national radio reported. Firefighters said about 200ha of woodland had already gone up in flames.

Some 250 firefighters and volunteers, backed by four water-dropping planes and two helicopters, were battling to extinguish the blaze amid strong winds. The firefighters said they suspected arson.

Custody

In France, where a French Foreign Legion officer was charged on Saturday with "involuntary fire-starting" over a blaze that reached the gates of Marseille, firefighters said the strong Mistral wind was easing.

On the French island of Corsica two suspected arsonists, who have been remanded in custody and charged, were to be questioned by a magistrate on Monday.

A third suspect, who was arrested earlier, is still in custody.

Meanwhile in Greece, rising temperatures - heading towards 40 ºC, coupled with anticipated strong winds, mean several regions were moved to the fourth of five alert levels.


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