Deadly fires ravaging Portugal come under control
LISBON (AFP) Aug 09, 2003
Portuguese firefighters said Saturday they had the wildfires that have killed 15 people since the end of July under control, but remained on alert for flare-ups as high temperatures continued.

"At this moment there are just three fires to control," the duty commander of the National Rescue Operation Centre, Nuno Costa, told private radio TSF.

The fires, described as medium-sized, were burning near the central city of Leiria as well as in the southern districts of Portalegre and Faro.

Firefighters said cooler overnight temperatures and higher humidity levels had helped tame the flames.

More than 2,000 firefighters, aided by some 800 soldiers, were either battling existing fires or were monitoring forests for signs of new fires, Costa said.

Some 500 people were treated for fire-related injuries last week alone, mostly for smoke inhalation, the health ministry said.

The government said Friday the fast-moving fires, which have been described as Portugal's worst fire tragedy, have already caused nearly one billion euros (1.1 billion dollars) in damage.

"This figure is not an upper limit. Unfortunately the figures are rising every day as fires continue," Interior Minister Antonio Figueiredo Lopes told a press conference.

The blazes have ravaged thousands of hectares of woodlands, disrupted power supplies and phone services, cut roads and destroyed dozens of homes.

Some 162,000 hectares (nearly 400,000 acres) of woodland have been lost to flames so far this year, of which 80 percent was forest, according to preliminary forest service figures released on Thursday.

Local officials however said the total amount of woodlands ravaged by the fires is much higher.

Forest industries such as pulp, paper and cork account for three percent of Portugal's gross domestic product and 11 percent of the nation's exports.

The European Commission, the exective arm of the European Union, said Friday it could provide immediate help for urgent needs, such as the clearing of roads and the restoration of electrical power, but needed concrete proposals from Lisbon before it could provide longer-term assistance.

The wildfires hit Portugal as the country, one of the poorest in the EU, struggles with a recession and a public deficit which threatens to once again violate EU rules.