Deadly Wildfire Causes Chaos in Portugal

Four people are dead as 13 major fires sweep the nation

Men spray water on the roofs of houses to protect them from an approaching fire in Curral dos Romeiros, on the outskirts of Funchal, on the Madeira island, Portugal, Tuesday, Aug. 9 2016. Flames from forest fires licked at homes around Funchal, casting a smoke plume over the downtown and forcing the evacuation of more than 400 people. (AP Photo/Helder Santos)

Men spray water on the roofs of houses to protect them from an approaching fire in Curral dos Romeiros, on the outskirts of Funchal, on the Madeira island, Portugal, Tuesday, Aug. 9 2016. Flames from forest fires licked at homes around Funchal, casting a smoke plume over the downtown and forcing the evacuation of more than 400 people. (AP Photo/Helder Santos)

 

BARRY HATTON, Associated Press

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — A wildfire swept overnight into Funchal, the capital of Portugal’s Madeira Islands, killing three elderly people and injuring hundreds as it burned homes and forced people to flee in panic, authorities said Wednesday.

Meanwhile in mainland Portugal, where 13 major wildfires were raging out of control, a forest watchman was also killed during the night when a blaze engulfed the caravan he was sleeping in 150 kilometers (95 miles) north of Lisbon.

Forest fires have been ravaging parts of Portugal since last Saturday, when strong winds and high temperatures swept across the country, and have stretched resources to the limit. The National Civil Protection Service said almost 3,900 firefighters were in action in a massive operation Wednesday, supported by 32 water-dumping aircraft and 1,150 vehicles. Even that wasn’t enough, and the government requested help from other European Union countries.

Miguel Albuquerque, head of Madeira’s regional government, told reporters the three victims there died in their burned homes early Wednesday as the wildfire hit the coastal city in the dark. He said two other people were seriously hurt, one person is missing and more than 300 people required medical treatment for smoke inhalation and minor burns.

He said 80 of the injured were still in the hospital. At least 37 houses and a five-star hotel had burned down.

The Madeira fire, fueled by hot weather and strong winds, forced the evacuation of around 1,000 residents and tourists in the islands off northwestern Africa. Residents described chaotic nighttime scenes, with people fleeing the flames by car at high speed on the wrong side of the road.

Tourism is the mainstay of Madeira’s economy. The high winds in recent days have also forced the cancellation of around two dozen flights.

The blaze broke out on Monday and firefighters said the island’s steep hills and dense woodland made it hard to reach the flames. Albuquerque said officials suspect the fire was started deliberately and police have made two arrests.

The evacuated people have been taken to an army barracks, a soccer stadium and a civic center on the island.

A Funchal animal shelter said it released 120 cats and dogs on Tuesday as flames bore down on its premises. By Wednesday afternoon it had recovered 102 of them, SPAD Funchal said on its Facebook page.

Reinforcements, including firefighters and doctors, were due to arrive Wednesday from the Portuguese mainland. The weather forecast is for cooler temperatures and a drop in the wind speed, which authorities hope will help extinguish the Madeira fire.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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