Wildfires raged unabated in Portugal on Wednesday, killing at least four people, burning down dozens of houses and sending people fleeing in panic, as well as charring huge areas of forest.
The National Civil Protection Service reported 14 major wildfires burning out of control in mainland Portugal where almost 4,500 firefighters were in action in a massive operation, supported by 28 water-dumping aircraft and 1,300 vehicles. Even that wasn’t enough, however, and the government requested help from other European Union countries.
Forest fires are common in Portugal, and elsewhere in southern Europe, during August; but a mixture of temperatures exceeding 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) and strong winds since Saturday have caused damage on a scale not seen for years. There were 186 wildfires on the mainland by late afternoon Wednesday, and fire chiefs said their crews were exhausted.
A wildfire that swept overnight into Funchal, the capital of Portugal’s Madeira Islands, killed three elderly people and left more than 300 people requiring medical treatment for smoke inhalation and minor burns, officials said.
Meanwhile, a forest watchman was killed on the mainland during the night when a blaze engulfed the mobile home he was sleeping in 95 miles north of Lisbon.
Miguel Albuquerque, head of Madeira’s regional government, told reporters the three local victims 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 and one person is missing. At least 37 houses and a five-star hotel had burned down. Tourism is the mainstay of Madeira’s economy.
The Madeira fire forced the evacuation of more than 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.
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 were 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 social media.
Reinforcements, including firefighters and doctors, arrived Wednesday from the mainland and Portugal’s mid-Atlantic Azores Islands.
The weather forecast is for cooler temperatures and calmer winds in Madeira, which authorities hope will help extinguish the wildfires.