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08 June 2023

Portugal battles raging forest fires

A wildfire burns in the forest surrounding Macao, central Portugal. (AFP)


Forest fires raged in the early hours of Thursday in central Portugal, cutting off roads and forcing thousands to flee just a month after deadly blazes left more than 60 people dead.

The biggest blaze was in Serta, in the Castelo Branco region, where more than a quarter of the country's firefighters were attempting to halt its progress.

Portugal has been battling fresh fires since Sunday in the centre of the country, forcing the evacuation of around 10 villages.

"The fire has spread throughout the afternoon," Portuguese civil protection spokeswoman Patricia Gaspar said Wednesday, though there were hopes that the wind and temperatures would drop overnight, making the firefighters' work easier.

Thirty kilometres further south another major fire reached Macao - a town with a population of 2,000 - just before midnight, according to an AFP journalist at the scene.

"We aren't managing to control the flames which are advancing on four or five fronts," local mayor Vasco Estrelan said earlier.

Villagers attempted to help firefighters, trying to extinguish the flames with hosepipes and buckets of water.

Flames reached the nearby A23 motorway, cutting off a 40-kilometre (25-mile) section, while traffic on the A25 further north was also blocked.

"We have been trying for more than two hours to control the fire that is heading towards the road, to prevent it from reaching our village," said Eduardo Forte, an entrepreneur who lives in nearby Pereiro.

A 50-year-old housewife was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of causing the fire that devastated Castelo Branco by using a lighter.

Nearly 8,000 forest fires have broken out in Portugal since the beginning of the year, consuming 75,000 hectares of forests - a 10-year-record - and 80 percent of the country is suffering from severe or extreme drought. Sixty-five suspected arsonists have been arrested.

"Today, we had all the ingredients for fire on a tragic scale. Our forests are in a state of abandon, there are too many pines and eucalyptus trees," Prime Minister Antonio Costa said.

"We will certainly have other fires of this magnitude, because the high risk will last until autumn," he added.

Last month's fires in Portugal left 64 people dead.