Portugal on high alert as firefighters battle blaze

Firefighters combat a forest fire in Casais de Sao Bento, Cardigos, Macao, Portugal, 22 July 2019. [EPA-EFE/ANTIONIO JOSE]

Portugal will go on high alert as more than 850 firefighters struggle to put out a fire sweeping across part of the country’s central region on Sunday (26 July), with strong winds and high temperatures complicating efforts to tackle the blaze.

The wildfire has been raging in the municipality of Oleiros since Saturday afternoon but it has spread to two neighbouring municipalities and has already forced the precautionary evacuation of a number of people.

A 21-year-old firefighter died in a road accident on Saturday evening while fighting the fire, and seven others were injured, including one civilian.

“I would like to send a word of solidarity, encouragement and thanks to the firefighters … for the work they do for Portugal and for all of us,” Prime Minister Antonio Costa said in a statement.

Portugal’s government issued the “situation of alert” for the whole country for Monday and Tuesday, raising the readiness levels of firefighters, police and emergency medical services. There is a ban on lighting fires and access to forests will be limited.

High temperatures are expected to continue, the country’s meteorology agency IPMA said, with the temperature in the Castelo Branco district, where the affected municipalities are located, expected to reach 38C on Monday.

Luis Belo Costa, commander from Castelo Branco, told a news conference that several houses were at risk as the fire raged near isolated villages.

“There were houses hit by the flames,” Belo Costa said. “People were evacuated but most have already returned to their homes.”

There were no immediate estimates for property damage.

Portugal’s internal affairs minister Eduardo Cabrita said it could take firefighters until Tuesday or Wednesday to bring the wildfire under control.

“This is a very big fire, covering an already considerable area,” said Belo Costa.

On Twitter, European Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarcic said authorities were “closely following the forest fires” in Portugal.

“Our thoughts are with all affected,” Lenarcic said.

The fires are small compared with a fire that hit the region in June 2017, killing 66 people and injuring more than 250.

EU data shows that Portugal is one of the EU’s worst-hit countries by fires every year.

One of the root causes of its frequent wildfires is that parts of the country’s interior are deserted as people have left to live in cities or abroad, and the job of clearing trees and bushes is neglected, creating a fire risk.

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