LISBON, Portugal (AP) — A major forest fire in Portugal’s Madeira Islands destroyed at least six homes and forced the evacuation Tuesday of more than 400 people from their homes and a hospital, officials said.
Cooler overnight temperatures briefly helped Portuguese firefighters battle other wildfires that have raged for several days on the mainland, although seven major wildfires were still out of control and 125 other blazes were being fought by mid-afternoon.
The month of August, when temperatures are high, winds blow strongly and woodland is parched, is traditionally the peak time for wildfires in Portugal and other southern European countries. Portuguese officials say fires are often started deliberately and spread quickly because forests are not cleared of dead wood.
Flames licked at homes around Madeira’s capital, Funchal, encroaching on the city’s suburbs and casting a smoke plume over the downtown, according to video broadcast by cable news channel S.I.C Noticias. Frantic locals used garden hosepipes and buckets of water to keep the flames at bay as wind blew embers across roads.
Fire service officials said Madeira’s steep hills and dense woodland made it hard to reach the flames. Police said they arrested a man suspected of starting the fire.
Eight firefighters in Madeira required medical treatment after inhaling smoke as high winds fueled the blaze in the island off northwest Africa. More than 200 patients were evacuated from a small hospital as a precaution, authorities said.
The National Civil Protection Service said 3,300 firefighters supported by 23 water-dumping aircraft were in action on the mainland.
The worst-hit areas were in northern Portugal, where temperatures have exceeded 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) since Saturday. The region’s pine and eucalyptus forests are tinder-dry after a long spell without significant rain.
In the area around Viseu, 290 kilometers (180 miles) north of Lisbon, the capital, a wildfire forced the closure of a major highway. In nearby Agueda, roads were closed and power lines were cut by wildfires.
In Lisbon, Tuesday was hazy with a smell of smoke caused by wildfires in the surrounding region.
Fire chiefs said some of their firefighters were exhausted after trying to put out blazes non-stop since Saturday, the hottest day of the year so far when temperatures reached 44 degrees Celsius (111 Fahrenheit).