Massive fires 'under control' in southern France

AFP , Thursday 27 Jul 2017

A photo taken on July 27, 2017 shows smokes rising from a land burnt by a forest fire in Bormes-les-Mimosas, southeastern France (Photo: AFP)

Huge fires that forced mass evacuations of residents and holidaymakers in southern France were being brought under control Thursday, firefighters said, although they warned new blazes were still starting.

As firefighters in France fought for a fourth day to put out the flames, the situation was improving in central Portugal where fires had raged across large areas of tinder-dry forest on Wednesday.

Parts of southern Europe are experiencing a scorching summer, leaving forests and bushland highly vulnerable to fire.

In the French village of Bormes-les-Mimosas, near beaches popular with tourists on the Cote d'Azur, fires that led to the evacuation of 10,000 people overnight Tuesday were largely extinguished.

"The fire is not completely under control but we are winning the fight," said Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Bernier, the civil security officer leading the emergency effort in the village.

"Things are going in the right direction but new fires are starting caused by gusts of wind," he said.

Of those forced to flee, 1,500 spent a second night in emergency accommodation centres in Bormes-les-Mimosas and hundreds of people chose to sleep on the beach rather than return to their campsites.

Miguel Goncalves, a 30-year-old Portuguese tourist who spent the night on the beach, told AFP: "We had not planned for this, but it is not too serious. The most important thing is not to be in danger."

In the neighbouring Bouches-du-Rhone region, three major fires were also under control or being dampened down on Thursday, firefighters told AFP.

Authorities remained on high alert, fearing that new blazes could start in the hot, dry conditions, fanned by the strong Mistral wind.

"In such dry conditions, we really fear that fires could start again," one firefighter said.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe visited an emergency shelter in Bormes-les-Mimosas on Wednesday and paid tribute to the efforts of firefighters.

Over 6,000 troops, soldiers and civil security officials are involved in efforts to put out the flames, backed up by 19 planes that have made more than 500 drops of water on the burning trees and bushes.

"It is an extremely intense use of both material and human resources," Philippe said.

Italy responded to France's call for help, sending a water-bombing plane which began work on Thursday.

More than 7,000 hectares of pine forest and bushes have been burned in southern France and on the island of Corsica.

The population of France's Cote d'Azur swells massively in July and August as millions of holidaymakers flood in.

The area is experiencing a particularly hot and dry summer that has made it especially prone to fires.

Authorities are investigating whether some of the blazes were started deliberately.

Experts say said a drop-off in farming in southeast France since the 1970s has allowed forests and wild areas of bush to proliferate, making the region more prone to fires.

An increase in the numbers of homes, roads and power lines has also increased the risk of fires.

Portugal was also battling forest fires that cut off roads in the centre of the country and forced thousands to flee just a month after deadly blazes left more than 60 people dead.

More than 3,000 firefighters -- more than a quarter of the country's total -- helped bring the fires under control, focusing their efforts on the biggest blaze in Serta, in the Castelo Branco region.

A village of 2,000 people was evacuated on Wednesday after fast-moving flames licked at its outskirts, but firefighters said the situation was under control 24 hours later.

"The weather is still against us and we remain on alert even in the areas where the fires have been brought under control," said Patricia Gaspar, spokeswoman for the civil protection authorities.

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