Rain helps tame Portugal wildfires as death toll rises

Officials say at least 30 people died in wildfires raging through parched farmlands and forests in Portugal and neighboring Spain on Sunday and Monday.
The aftermath of a forest fire in Miro, near Penacova in Portugal, yesterday. The country's civil protection agency says the 15 biggest fires have been brought under control.
The aftermath of a forest fire in Miro, near Penacova in Portugal, yesterday. The country's civil protection agency says the 15 biggest fires have been brought under control.PHOTO: REUTERS

37 deaths come just four months after 64 were killed in June in country's deadliest fire

LISBON (Portugal) • Overnight rain and winds helped firefighters yesterday tame wildfires that had devoured homes and people in their cars in Portugal, leaving 37 dead, with four also killed in blazes in northern Spain.

Portugal's civil protection agency said yesterday that the 15 biggest fires had been brought under control. As the country began three days of mourning, the agency said 71 people had been injured in the fires, 16 of them seriously, and one person was still missing.

The deaths, which included a one-month-old baby, came four months after 64 people were killed in the deadliest fire in the country's history in June. "We went through absolute hell, it was horrible. There was fire everywhere," a resident of the town of Penacova, near Lousa, told RTP television.

The blazes, which broke out over the weekend, were blamed on arsonists and fanned by Hurricane Ophelia. Lisbon declared a state of emergency in areas north of the Tagus river, which effectively slices the country in half.

The civil protection agency said that about 50 teams and more than 5,000 firefighters remained deployed and that a red alert in place since Sunday would remain in force until 8pm yesterday.

Fallen electricity pylons and abandoned cars were left lying on roads.

"Most of the victims were killed in their cars, but we also found them inside their houses," Mayor Jose Carlos Alexandrino of the town of Oliveira do Hospital said on RTP. "The whole city looked like a ball of fire, surrounded by flames on all sides."

Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa reaffirmed his pledges to prevent new tragedies by carrying out "fundamental reforms" in forest management and firefighting.

"After this year, nothing should remain as it was before," he said.

But critics asked why the government had not learnt any lesson from the June blaze.

"If a tragedy happens twice in four months, it is not exactly extraordinary. And since it is not (extraordinary), it implies that the government repeated the failure of its most basic duty: protecting the lives of its citizens," wrote columnist Joao Miguel Tavares in the Publico daily yesterday.

Mr Hugo Soares, the parliamentary head of the centre-right opposition Social Democrats, said yesterday that Mr Costa's statement was an "insult to the intelligence" of the Portuguese.

The weekend's fires brought the total area burned in Portugal this year to 350,000ha, the worst since 2003, making the country by far the worst-hit by fires this year in the European Union (EU).

In neighbouring Spain, which also had fires in the past few days, just 88,000ha had been burnt this year, according to EU data.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has blamed arsonists for most of the deadly wildfires, saying: "What we are experiencing here does not happen by chance."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2017, with the headline 'Rain helps tame Portugal wildfires as death toll rises'. Print Edition | Subscribe