Firefighters close in on Spain blaze

2012-07-24 17:24

Figueres - Firefighters were on the verge of stamping out a wildfire in Spain on Tuesday, that killed four people and sent terrified campers from across Europe fleeing for their lives, officials said.

Hundreds of emergency workers and volunteers were fighting the fire, which has raged over 14 000ha, devouring tall trees and leaving charred earth and flocks of dead sheep in its wake.

Six people remained in hospital on Tuesday, including a nine-year-old boy who was in intensive care, the regional health department said, as regional authorities sounded cautiously hopeful of soon beating the flames.

"The general feeling is that it will be possible to enter into a control phase during the day," said Felip Puig, interior minister of the north-eastern Catalonia region where the fire broke out Sunday near the French border.

"We are reasonably optimistic," Puig said, adding that lower temperatures, weaker winds and higher air humidity levels were expected to last long enough to ease conditions for extinguishing the blaze.

Not spreading

A spokesperson for the fire services said earlier the fire was "still active", but it had not spread since Monday evening.

Water-bombing planes were grounded on Monday because of high winds, but they died down during the night, she added.

Some 1 500 people including emergency and military personnel and local volunteers were still fighting the blaze, backed by 25 French and Spanish aircraft.

Emergency services ordered thousands of residents in 17 towns to stay indoors with their windows and doors shut because of the threat from the smoke and flames.

Puig said on Monday the fire had likely been caused by a discarded cigarette butt. Spain is at higher risk of forest fires than ever this summer after suffering its driest winter in 70 years.

Hundreds of people including tourists at a campsite were evacuated and spent the night in emergency shelters set up in the region, mostly in the town of Figueres, a few kilometres south of the border.

Mark Van Persie, a 48-year-old Dutchman who drove with his family from the Netherlands in their caravan to holiday in Spain, said he was given 10 minutes to pack a few things and leave a campsite in Albanya.

"It was a little scary because we knew that there is only one road and since the wind had changed we saw the smoke coming closer," he said at a gym in Figueres where he and other evacuees were eating breakfast.

Panic, fear

Sylvain Fouchier, a 35-year-old Frenchman who also fled the camp along with other Belgian, Dutch, French, German and Spanish tourists, said some people were not able to reach the emergency shelters.

"Some people gathered their belongings and tried to leave, but they came back because the roads were closed," said Fouchier who was on holiday with his wife and three children.

After the major highway linking Spain and France was closed on Sunday, dozens of people took to the coast road and were caught by an outbreak of the fire around the Spanish town of Portbou.

Some abandoned their cars and fled on foot as the flames advanced, scrambling or jumping down cliffs.
Four people have been killed since the fire began.

One Frenchman and his 15-year-old daughter died after jumping off a cliff and another Frenchman died in hospital from burns after his car was engulfed in flames while a 75-year-old Spanish man died of a heart attack.

The wildfire broke out on Sunday near the Catalan town of La Jonquera, and spread quickly across the Alt Emporda area, whipped on by winds of up to 90km an hour.