Villagers, firefighters battle huge blazes in central Portugal


VILA DE REI/MACAO, Portugal (Reuters) – As flames closed in on villages in central Portugal on Sunday afternoon, locals were forced to take matters into their own hands, protecting their homes from huge wildfires with buckets of water and hosepipes as strong winds fanned the blaze.

A firefighting plane dumps water on a forest fire next to the village of Vila de Rei, Portugal July 21, 2019. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

Two of the three wildfires which broke out on Saturday in Castelo Branco, a district 225 kilometers (139 miles) northeast of Lisbon, are still burning. Having spread to the nearby Santarem district, they are now threatening several villages in the Vila de Rei and Macao municipalities.

More than 1,150 firefighters are on the ground, according to the National Authority for Civil Protection. However, a Reuters photographer in Vila de Rei said the sight of firefighters was rare and the wildfire there was spreading.

Authorities have evacuated villages and fluvial beaches as a precaution and 20 people — twelve civilians and eight firefighters — have been injured. One is in a serious condition and remains hospitalized with first and second degree burns.

The fires stirred memories of a devastating wildfire in the central town of Pedrogao Grande in June 2017, the worst disaster in modern Portuguese history, which killed 64 people and injured more than 250.

“The fire is out of control, without resources on the ground, and the population at risk,” Vasco Estrela, the mayor of Macao, told Portuguese radio station TSF. “We never thought we would live through this again.”

Images broadcast by Portuguese TV channel TVI showed villagers in Macao trying to protect their houses and animals as smoke filled the air, forcing many to wear masks.

“(It will be) an afternoon of intense work,” Belo Costa, a Civil Protection official, told reporters earlier on Sunday.

Sixteen airplanes and 354 firefighting vehicles on the ground are battling the blazes, along with 20 soldiers and four bulldozers, according to the agency.

Internal administration minister Eduardo Cabrita said police had opened an investigation into the fires, adding that local authorities considered it unusual that all the blazes had started in a narrow time frame between 1430 and 1530 local time (1330-1430 GMT) on Saturday in the same area.

In a statement, police said that a 55-year-old man was detained on suspicion of starting a blaze in the Portuguese district of Castelo Branco.

Quoted by Portuguese newspaper Observador, a police source said the detention was not related to the ongoing fires. The police did not immediately reply to a Reuters request for comment.

A number of municipalities in Santarem and Castelo Branco are still considered at maximum risk of fire, according to the national meteorological agency.

In the municipality of Macao, temperatures reached 34 degrees Celsius on Sunday and are expected to increase to 37 degrees Celsius on Monday.

On Twitter, European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides said he is following the situation closely, adding that the European Union is ready to provide help.

Reporting by Catarina Demony in Lisbon and Miguel Pereira and Rafael Marchante in Vila de Rei; Writing by Catarina Demony, Joan Faus; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Louise Heavens and Kirsten Donovan

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