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Archive for the ‘Iberian Land of Portugal’ Category

Portugal says major wildfire will take days to put out

August 08, 2018

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — A major wildfire blackening hills in Portugal’s southern Algarve region likely will take several more days to bring under control, the country’s prime minister said Wednesday. Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa said that efforts to control the fire that broke out Friday were being hampered by gusting winds, the region’s deep ravines and the numerous plantations where combustible eucalyptus is grown for paper pulp.

Costa spoke after visiting the headquarters of the Portuguese Civil Protection Agency, the government body that is coordinating the emergency response to the fire. The Civil Protection Agency said almost 1,300 firefighters from across Portugal were assigned to the blaze, the most since it started. Public TV network RTP said more than 20,000 hectares (49,000 acres) have burned in the fire.

The prime minister is aware of potential political repercussions from major wildfires; the deaths of 109 people in blazes last year almost brought down his government. Costa acknowledged that much more work was needed to prevent catastrophic fires, including diversifying the vegetation in Portugal’s forests and establishing fire breaks.

High clouds of black smoke have towered for days over the Algarve region, a top European vacation destination. While winds have made the firefighting effort more difficult, crew working overnight kept flames from reaching the town of Silves, a popular tourist spot and home to about 6,000 people.

The torrid weather that has hung over much of Europe for weeks also was subsiding, with a high of 31 degrees Celsius (88 F) forecast for the Algarve on Wednesday. Along with ground crews, 13 aircraft and more than 380 vehicles were battling the blaze.

In neighboring Spain, 27 aircraft were helping some 700 firefighters put out a fire near Valencia. Radio broadcaster Cadena SER said nearly 2,900 hectares have been burned.

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Wildfires torment Portugal, Spain; French, Dutch feel heat

August 07, 2018

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Firefighters and anxious residents braced Tuesday for a fifth straight night of battling a major wildfire that is racing across tinder-dry forested hills in southern Portugal. The blaze is sending high plumes of smoke across the Algarve region’s famous beaches and bringing criticism of authorities for failing to halt the flames.

A strong seasonal wind from the north known as a “nortada” was driving the fire south toward Silves, a town of about 6,000 people, after it narrowly missed the smaller town of Monchique. Several hundred people were evacuated, and 29 were hurt, one seriously, officials said.

Almost 1,200 firefighters supported by 16 aircraft and 358 vehicles were deployed around Monchique, a town of 2,000 people about 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Lisbon, where the blaze came within 500 meters (yards) of the local fire station.

An unknown number of homes — believed to number in the dozens, according to local reports — in the forested hills have burned down. With so many resources deployed, many residents asked why the fire was still burning, especially after 95 percent of it was under control on Monday.

Firefighters also publicly questioned the wisdom of the strategy to counter the flames, with some claiming poor organization was thwarting the operation. Monchique was identified as a high risk area months ago.

Firefighting is coordinated by the Civil Protection Agency, a government body overseen by the Ministry for the Interior, which oversees national defense. The National Association of Professional Firemen and the Professional Firemen’s Trade Union issued a joint statement saying that the government’s recent reorganization of firefighting capabilities need to be reassessed and rethought. The organizations asked for a “very urgent” meeting with the Minister of the Interior.

The minister, Eduardo Cabrita, told reporters authorities were switching coordination of the Monchique fire from the local Civil Protection Agency to the department’s national operational command in Lisbon.

He declined to criticize the firefighting operation, saying the effort had been “notable.” Portugal beefed up its wildfire response over the winter after 109 people died last year in forest blazes amid a severe drought.

Vitor Vaz Pinto, the Civil Protection Agency’s district commander, said the weather forecast around Monchique was “unfavorable,” with a gusting wind from the north, known as a “nortada.” Temperatures were forecast to reach 35 C (95 F) — normal for August in southern Portugal.

The Iberian peninsula endured some record heat last weekend, with temperatures exceeding 45 C (113 F), which parched large areas. Spanish emergency services said a wildfire Tuesday near Valencia, on the Mediterranean coast, was almost under control after two dozen aircraft were brought in. The blaze forced the evacuation of around 2,500 people.

The high temperatures moved northward to France. The hottest weather was expected in central and northeastern France, with temperatures that could reach 40 C (104 F). Dutch authorities evacuated four campsites as a brush fire swept through parched countryside in the eastern Netherlands, where temperatures were in the mid-30s C (90s F). The regional security service said that firefighters from three provinces were battling the blaze Tuesday in Wateren, 135 kilometers (85 miles) northeast of Amsterdam.

Lisbon breaks record for maximum temp, hits 44 C (111.2 F)

August 05, 2018

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Lisbon broke a 37-year-old record to notch its hottest temperature ever as an unrelenting heat wave baked Portugal and neighboring Spain. New heat records were set in 26 places around Portugal.

Portugal’s weather service said the capital reached 44 degrees Celsius (111.2 degrees Fahrenheit) on Saturday afternoon, surpassing the city’s previous record of 43 C (109.4 F) set in 1981. The day’s hottest temperature of 46.8 C (116.2 F) was recorded at Alvega in the center of Portugal. The country’s highest temperature on record is 47.4 C (117.3 F) from 2003.

Portugal’s weather service said new maximum highs were recorded at 26 places from measurements taken at a total of 96 weather stations around the country. More than 60 percent of the country registered temperatures of over 40 C (104 F).

The hot, dusty conditions across the Iberian Peninsula are the result of a mass of hot air from Africa and have increased the risk of forest fires. Over 700 firefighters were still battling a forest fire near the Portuguese town of Monchique in the southern Algarve region, a popular tourist destination.

Six people were injured late Saturday as they escaped a separate blaze near the Portuguese town of Estremoz, civil protection officer Jose Ribeiro told the Portuguese state television RTP. Sunday’s forecasts called for temperatures to dip slightly while remaining extremely high.

Portugal issued warnings of extreme heat for most of the country and forecast maximum temperatures of 44 C (111.2 F) for some areas in the south. Spain lowered its warnings for heat from “red” to “orange” for large parts of the south, but highs there were still predicted to reach 40-42 C (104-107.6 F).

40 die in fires in Portugal, Spain; Rain helps firefighters

October 17, 2017

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Rain and lower temperatures are helping emergency teams in Portugal and Spain fight the forest fires that killed at least 40 people over the weekend. Civil Protection authorities say wildfires in Portugal were under control by Tuesday morning, after at least 36 people died and dozens were injured. Portugal, which still has seven people missing in the blazes, began three days of national mourning on Tuesday.

In northwest Spain, where four people have died in the fires, regional authorities in Galicia say 27 forest fires are still out of control Tuesday, seven of them close to inhabited areas. Investigations are still underway to find the cause for the late-season wave of hundreds of forest fires, which officials in both countries are blaming mostly on arsonists.

Portugal faces dire drought, the worst in more than 20 years

September 11, 2017

SANTA SUSANA, Portugal (AP) — Portugal’s Pego do Altar reservoir looks like disused quarry now, its bare, exposed slopes rising up steeply on each side and shimmering in the sun as it holds barely 11 percent of the water it was designed for.

The huge lake where people used to swim, boat and fish has shrunk to a slither of water, surrounded by baked, cracked earth and a handful of white fish carcasses. It is a desolate and disturbing sight — and one that has become increasingly common in southern Portugal.

While parts of the United States and the Caribbean are drowning in water amid ferocious hurricanes, a drought is tightening its grip on wide areas of Portugal. More than 80 percent of the country is officially classified as enduring “severe” or “extreme” drought — conditions among the country’s worst in more than 20 years.

Water has sporadically been scarce in this part of southern Europe for centuries. But Portuguese Environment Secretary Carlos Martins tells The Associated Press that “it has gotten worse with climate change.”

The prolonged dry spell is most acute in the Alentejo region, south and east of Lisbon, the capital. Here, the essential river is the Sado, Portugal’s seventh-largest. As its flow has dwindled, so the reservoirs in the river basin, such as Pego do Altar, are drying up. In some places now, the Sado is a thin, knee-deep flow.

The receding water at Pego do Altar has exposed a small, 18th-century stone bridge which was last seen in 1999. Locals have been coming to take photos of themselves next to it. The dead fish in Pego do Altar’s dried mud are the canary in the mine for authorities. Large numbers of fish dying due to depleted oxygen levels would contaminate the area’s public drinking water, so a program to scoop out the doomed fish from four Sado basin reservoirs is now underway. It’s a race against the clock.

“It’s a preventive measure,” says Carlos Silva, a spokesman for EDIA, a state company that helps manage the Alentejo’s water supply. “It would be a catastrophe if the fish started dying off” in large quantities.

As gray herons watch from the bank and birds of prey glide silently by, fishermen Tomaz Silva, 25, and Miguel Farias, 29, nudge their boat toward silver nets buoyed by empty plastic water bottles that they had strung across the reservoir the previous day. Chatting in a strong Alentejo accent, they throw the fish into a box where they flap around. Some weigh 5 or 6 kilograms (up to 13 pounds) and are as long as an adult’s arm. Many, however, are skinny due to the fierce competition for diminishing food.

With the water level so low, it’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. Silva and Farias catch on average between 1 and 1.5 metric tons a day. Their haul is taken away to be turned into fishmeal. Over about six weeks, officials expect to harvest more than 100 metric tons from the four Sado reservoirs.

Martins, the environment secretary, said a government drought monitoring committee is working to reconcile the conflicting demands placed on the region’s scarce water resources. Making sure there’s enough water for drinking faucets is the top priority, he says.

That could end up bringing a ban on the irrigation of farmland, which uses up 80 percent of the region’s available water. Farmers are fretting over their parched pasture land and wilting cereal crops. Cattle breeders are demanding drinking water for their livestock. And energy companies want water to flow to keep up their hydroelectric production at dams.

The Alentejo is a famously pretty part of Portugal, with groves of olive trees, stone pines and cork oaks — native varieties resilient enough to survive its weather extremes. But it’s also one of the European Union’s poorest regions — sparsely populated, covering 34 percent of the country but containing only 7 percent of its population. Almost half of its residents are more than 65 years old.

Many people here make a living from farming, and cutting off irrigation would sound the death knell for their jobs. At Torrao, a 15th-century hilltop village with a panoramic view of the Sado basin’s Vale do Gaio reservoir, locals live with daily evidence of the drought.

Antonio Sardinha, an 82-year-old subsistence farmer with thick fingers and a sun-kissed complexion, says he has never seen the reservoir so low. Official records say it’s at 18 percent of capacity. The water in his well is so shallow, he says, that his bucket hits the bottom.

“Water is the key to everything,” Sardinha said. “You need water to create everything else.”

Wildfires rage on untamed in Greece, Portugal and Corsica

August 13, 2017

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Hot and dry weather stoked another round of wildfires burning across southern Europe on Sunday as firefighters in Greece, Portugal and the French island of Corsica struggled to corral the flames.

Greek authorities voiced suspicions that at least some of the several dozen fires that broke out on both the mainland and the island of Zakynthos over the weekend were started deliberately. Over 4,000 firefighters were battling more than 250 wildfires in Portugal, which requested assistance from other European Union nations.

On Corsica, fires that have raged since Thursday forced the evacuation of 1,000 people, authorities said. The latest blaze in Greece started Sunday afternoon in a pine forest and had damaged as many as 20 houses by night in a town north of the capital. Kalamos, a town some 44 kilometers (27 miles) north of Athens, is a favorite vacation spot for Athenians.

Authorities said they have shut down a large portion of the local road network as the blaze expanded in several directions, including toward Athens. They also evacuated two children’s campgrounds. Portugal Civil Protection Agency spokeswoman Patricia Gaspar said the country set an annual single-day record for new fires on Saturday, when 268 separate fires started. That surpassed the previous year-to-date high mark of 220 fires reached Friday.

While the weather isn’t helping, nature was responsible for igniting a minority of the blazes, Gaspar said. “We know that more than 90 percent of the fires have a human cause, whether intentional of from negligence. Both are crimes,” she said.

Authorities believe a series of fires raging on several fronts on the western Greek island of Zakynthos were started deliberately. The country’s fire service said there were “well-founded suspicions of foul play” after five fires broke out late Saturday and early Sunday, followed by another three later on Sunday morning.

Greek Justice Minister Stavros Kontonis, who is also the local member of parliament, said of the multiple blazes while visiting the island: “This is planned.” The fire service said 10 of the 12 fires burning on Zakynthos were still unchecked, with high winds making it difficult to control the flames.

A total of 53 wildfires broke out in Greece on Saturday and several more did on Sunday, including on the island of Kefalonia, next to Zakynthos. Authorities said the multiple blazes had stretched firefighting capabilities to the limit. Firefighting planes and helicopters cannot fly at night, adding another degree of difficulty. In Zakynthos, authorities were monitoring the progress of the flames with a small camera-equipped drone, which provides information to firefighters on the ground, the fire service said.

Trouble controlling flames and forecasts calling for more hot and dry days ahead prompted Portugal’s government to ask other countries in Europe for help, Minister of Internal Administration Constanca Urbano de Sousa said.

Portugal has been especially hard hit by wildfires, including one that killed 64 people in June, during a summer marked by high temperatures and a lack of rain. Wildfires in Portugal this year have accounted for more than one-third of the burned forest in the entire 28-country European Union.

The EU’s Emergency Management Service said the amount of forestland blackened in Portugal as of Aug. 5 was about five times larger than the average recorded in the country between 2008 and 2016. In southern France, fierce flames have ravaged some 2,100 hectares (5,190 acres) of land since Thursday — with 2,000 hectares (4,940 acres) burned in Corsica alone.

French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said there have been no casualties from the fires thanks to the efforts by 1,200 firefighters and the air teams that carried out 300 water drops in 24 hours. While the mainland fires were tamed over the weekend, the Corsica blazes were ongoing and still required “major means,” Collomb said.

Firefighters continued to fight wildfires in the Corsican towns of Manso and the hilly Pietracorbara. Northern Corsica Prefect Gerard Gavory said over 1,000 thousand residents and tourists have been evacuated.

Portugal battles to contain deadly wildfires amid heat, wind

June 20, 2017

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Emergency services in Portugal said Tuesday they were making headway in their battle to control a major wildfire that killed 64 people in the central area of the country, but another blaze nearby grew in size and caused concern.

The Civil Protection Agency said about 1,200 firefighters and nine water-dropping aircraft were fighting the deadly wildfire in Pedrogao Grande, which was raging for a third consecutive day about 150 kilometers (90 miles) north of Lisbon. Officials said that blaze was mostly contained though still burning fiercely.

Temperatures forecast to reach 43 degrees Celsius (109 Fahrenheit), gusting winds and bone-dry woodland were fueling the blazes, Commander Vitor Vaz Pinto told reporters. Some resources were being diverted to Gois, about 20 kilometers from Pedrogao Grande, where almost 800 firefighters and four planes were battling the flames. Vaz Pinto said the Gois wildfire was “very fast and very explosive” and had forced the evacuation of 11 hill villages.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Antonio Costa ordered an investigation into what happened on Saturday night when the deaths occurred, 47 of them on a road as people fled the flames. Costa’s order asked three questions: whether the extreme weather could explain the scale of the disaster, why emergency services communications at times didn’t work, and why the road where the deaths occurred was not closed.

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