1000s of firefighters battle forest blazes in Portugal

A firefighter takes a breather during an operation to extinguish a fire in Mosteiro, northern Portugal. (Miguel Riopa, AFP)
A firefighter takes a breather during an operation to extinguish a fire in Mosteiro, northern Portugal. (Miguel Riopa, AFP)

Lisbon - More than 4 400 firefighters battled hundreds of forest blazes of varying sizes across Portugal on Monday, authorities said, as the annual summer wildfire season hit a peak.

The National Civil Protection Authority said on its website that by late afternoon almost 1 500 vehicles and 32 water-dumping aircraft were deployed at 702 wildfires, some of which have been burning for days.

It classified eight wildfires in the north of the country as major blazes that were out of control.

The fires spread quickly through mostly pine and eucalyptus forests that are tinder-dry after weeks without significant rain. Daytime temperatures in recent days have exceeded 30°C and in some northern cities exceeded 40°C on Monday.

Despite the dramatic scenes no injuries were reported, though some families had to evacuate their homes and some farm buildings burned down.

Forest fires commonly occur in Portugal, and elsewhere in southern Europe, in the summer. Portuguese firefighters blame poor forest management for the destruction of large areas of woodland each year.

Three major wildfires blackened swaths of forest near Aveiro, about 200km north of Lisbon, where one blaze was advancing along a 5km front.

Further north in Porto, the country's second-largest city, district authorities activated an emergency plan granting authorities special powers such as the requisitioning of privately owned heavy machinery. More than 100 army soldiers were called out to help.

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Spain, authorities said on Monday that firefighters had managed to bring a six-day-old forest fire on the Atlantic island of La Palma under control and were allowing evacuated residents to return to their homes.

The regional government for the Canary Islands archipelago said the measure affected 500 residents evacuated a day earlier from the town of Villa de Mazo.

The fire claimed the life of one forest worker and has destroyed more than 4 000ha of forest on the volcanic island off the northwest coast of Africa.

An unnamed 27-year-old German man admitted to police that he had started the fire accidentally by burning soiled toilet paper.

About 350 firefighters, supported by four planes and eight helicopters dumping water, were battling the fire.

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