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France, Portugal battle forest fires

Vitrolles—France mobilized 1,500 firefighters Wednesday to tackle wildfires in countryside north of Marseille that have gutted buildings and forced more than 1,000 people to flee their homes.

Whipped up by strong winds, the blaze took hold around 3:30 pm (1330 GMT) and has spread over 2,260 hectares (5,600 acres) of scrubland, grass and some wooded areas, according to firefighters.

“We haven’t seen a situation like this for a very long time,” the fire service said, first calling the wildfires “out of control” but later describing more favorable conditions in the night.

Meanwhile, three people have died in raging forest fires on Portugal’s holiday island of Madeira where flames damaged homes and a hotel and forced around 1,000 people to flee.

Portugal urged its European partners Wednesday to help in battling multiple blazes on the island known as the “Pearl of the Atlantic”.

The three perished in their homes close to the historic centre of the capital Funchal, while a hotel overlooking the town was destroyed and other buildings were licked by flames, officials said.

Firefighters worked through the night training jets of water high on to the orange flames against the dark night sky in Funchal’s narrow streets to try to protect its historic heart.

In France, homes were destroyed in the town of Vitrolles, some 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Marseille, with more than 1,000 people forced to seek shelter in local sports centers. 

Dramatic images showed a helicopter battling to douse a blazing hillside with water just meters from a motorway close to Vitrolles, while one person was seriously injured in nearby Rognac.

The blaze—which comes after low rainfall in winter and spring left southeast France extremely dry—sent a huge pall of smoke into the sky over the port city of Marseille.

“The fire seems to be less intense than before but is not yet under control,” Marseille mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin said in a tweet.

“The situation has been complicated by the weather, with a strong wind and lack of rain for several weeks,” said Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, who had traveled to the firefighters’ base in Aix-en-Provence.

“The goal of our forces is to completely control the fire so that it does not reach the towns, especially Marseille,” he added.

Further west in Herault, four firefighters were injured battling another blaze when their vehicle was surrounded by the flames.

Hundreds of extra firefighters have been drafted in from elsewhere in France to tackle the blaze.

Road and air transport were badly affected by the fire on Wednesday evening, with two motorways closed and some flights cancelled at Marseille airport. 

Topics: France , Portugal , Wildfires
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