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. Mediterranean rim battles to contain wildfires

Firefighters work to extinguish fire on Monte Arci in Sardinia on July 23, 2009. One person was killed in a forest fire on the Italian island of Sardinia and another was missing, while authorities evacuated homes and a beach due to approaching flames, officials said. Temperatures had reached 46 degrees Celsius (115 degrees Fahrenheit) in some areas of Sardinia and strong winds had fuelled the flames. In Capo Pecora in the island's southwest, three helicopters and four civil protection speedboats had to evacuate some 120 beachgoers because of approaching fire. Photo courtesy AFP.

Mediterranean wildfires wreak destruction, recrimination
Deadly wildfires sweeping through southern Europe ravaged areas of Italy and Corsica Saturday, as a French foreign legionnaire was charged over a blaze that reached the gates of Marseille. Amid the devastation, there have also been recriminations with mourners in Sardinia, where a shepherd and a rancher were killed trying to protect their animals, blaming some of the blazes on criminals and vandals. With the stench of smoke hovering around gutted dwellings and razed woodland stretching for miles in some areas, Italian firefighters battled some 17 blazes Saturday in fierce temperatures mainly on the islands of Sardinia and Sicily, and in the southern Calabria region. Officials said they were looking "for a drop in temperatures and other factors to help stop the fires from spreading and fanning flames", Luigi D'Angelo of Italy's civil protection force told the ANSA news agency. Some 1,500 firefighters and volunteers are engaged in the struggle there, backed by eight Canadairs planes and 11 helicopters. D'Angelo said hundreds of people had been evacuated from the north-eastern Sardinian village of Budoni, but stressed that the fires posed "no particular danger for people because they are in forest areas." Investigations into what caused the fires that killed the shepherd and the rancher have found that one of the most devastating blazes on the island was deliberately set. "Anger over such a catastrophe... is even greater when you find out there was a human hand behind the fires. It is unacceptable that in our region there are still criminal minds capable of such acts," said the head of the Sardinian region, Ugo Cappellacci, at the funeral of one of the victims. The Foreign Legion officer in charge of training when tracer rounds fired by troops were said to have sparked a massive blaze outside Marseille appeared in front of a magistrate Saturday on charges of "involuntary fire-starting." After two days in detention when he told investigators of his deep regret, the 43-year-old - just back from Afghanistan - was released on bail, but left contemplating potential ignominy after 23 years in the world-famous regiment. Again in Marseille, officials identified the malicious starting of at least one new fire overnight in France's second city.
by Staff Writers
Rome (AFP) July 26, 2009
Firefighters battled blazes in five countries along the northern Mediterranean rim Sunday, slowly gaining the upper hand after an exhausting week that left eight people dead.

Tens of thousands of hectares of countryside have been devastated mainly in Italy, Spain, France and Greece with initial estimates suggesting that the insurance bill may already run into hundreds of millions of euros

New fires were sparked Sunday in some of the worst hit areas, but also in Croatia, with the latest again blamed on arson following recriminations over criminal fire-starting elsewhere.

On the scorched Italian island of Sardinia, as many as 25,000 hectares (60,000 acres) have been razed by a flaming inferno fanned by high temperatures and an extra-strong Mistral, a fast and dry northerly wind.

Firefighters had extinguished late Sunday four fires that had earlier been burning on the island, a spokesman for Italy's civil protection corps said.

Indeed, since 6:00 am (0400 GMT) on Sunday, his teams had been called out on 17 occasions to fight wildfires -- down from some 40 call-outs on Saturday.

Sardinia remained the Italian hotspot, with the damage there alone estimated at 80 million euros (115 million dollars).

Ten specialist water-dropping planes, including two Canadairs sent in by the European Union, were trying to douse flames with volunteers helping to rake through the embers of destroyed local livelihoods.

Amid the devastation, there have also been recriminations with mourners in Sardinia, where a shepherd and a farmer were killed trying to protect their animals, blaming some of its blazes on criminals and vandals.

"It is unacceptable that in our region there are still criminal minds capable of such acts," said the head of the Sardinian region, Ugo Cappellacci, at the funeral of one of the victims on Saturday.

In Spain, dozens of firefighters backed by two water-dropping aircraft were battling a blaze that broke out Sunday on farmland near the airport at Palma de Mallorca in the Balearic Islands, local officials said.

The wildfire was threatening several homes but did not disrupt air travel at the airport, Spain's third-busiest in terms of passenger traffic, they said.

Six firefighters have already died in Spain tackling infernos that changed course with sudden ferocity. The interior ministry said earlier that officials remained on maximum alert with about 20,000 hectares reduced to smouldering earth this past week.

In Croatia, the island of Ciovo, off the coastal town of Split, was the latest to be hit. Firefighters said some 200 hectares of woodland had already gone up in flames. Once again, they suspected arson.

In France, where a French Foreign Legion officer was charged on Saturday with "involuntary fire-starting" over a blaze that reached the gates of Marseille, firefighters said the Mistral was easing.

The 43-year-old soldier -- just back from Afghanistan and responsible for the release of tracer rounds in training that sparked the blaze -- was released on bail, but left contemplating potential ignominy after 23 years in the world-famous regiment.

On the French island of Corsica, which pratically touches Sardinia, two suspected arsonists, who have been remanded in custody and charged, were to be questioned by a magistrate on Monday, prosecutor general Paul Michel told AFP.

"The two farmers, aged 24 and 21, admitted to setting five blazes in three villages in the Rapale area," he said after police arrested the pair on Friday and Saturday after a tip-off.

A third suspect, arrested earlier, is still in custody.

Also on the island, a firefighter sustained an eye injury Sunday battling a blaze that had been raging near the southern village of Aullene since Thursday.

Meanwhile in Greece, firefighters were trying to put out three forest blazes in the south of the country amid high temperatures and strong winds.

earlier related report
Extreme weather kills 18 in Europe
Teruel, Spain (AFP) July 24 - Extreme weather has killed and injured dozens of people across Europe, with Spain, France and Italy hit by summer wild fires and parts of central Europe deluged by storms, officials said Friday.

While the deadly fires spread in Spain, France, Italy and Greece, violent storms slammed central Europe. Ten people were killed and dozens injured as the storms felled trees and electricity poles, ripped off roofs and caused local flooding.

Western and south-western Poland were hardest hit, with hurricane-force winds reaching 130-kilometres-per-hour (80 miles-per-hour) in some areas.

"Eight people died in all," Poland's national fire brigade spokesman Pawel Fratczak told AFP.

He said 82 people were seriously injured and required medical attention and that most deaths were caused by falling trees.

High winds also claimed two lives and injured dozens in the neighbouring Czech Republic.

According to Poland's IMiGW state weather service, the unusually violent storms were caused when hot air masses from north Africa clashed with cooler air systems moving in from western Europe.

In Austria, hail pounded 60,000 hectares (148,000 acres) of crops Thursday, causing estimated damage of 20 million euros (28.4 million dollars), according to the Osterreichische Hagelversicherung insurance company.

Storms were still battering parts of Poland Friday, but forecasts suggested they would not be as violent as those of the previous night.

Meanwhile, at least eight people were known to have died in the fires sweeping across several European countries in the past three days.

A badly burned firefighter died in a Barcelona hospital on Friday, a hospital spokesman said, taking to six the number of firefighters killed since wildfires broke out across Spain earlier in the week.

The 31-year-old firefighter suffered burns to more than half his body when he was caught out by a sudden change of wind direction while fighting an inferno at Horta de Sant Joan, in the south of Catalonia, on Tuesday.

Four of his comrades were killed almost instantly at the scene, while one was still in hospital on Friday with burns to 75 percent of his body.

The driver of a firefighters' truck was killed in the province on Thursday after his vehicle fell into a ravine as it avoided flames.

Helicopters and civil protection boats plucked about 120 people to safety from a beach at Capo Pecora in the southwest of Sardinia on Thursday night after they became trapped by flames.

Near Cagliari, the island's main city, inmates from a prison spent the night on a beach because fire threatened the penitentiary.

Some 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) of forest and brush have been destroyed by six separate fires on Sardinia. Hundreds of firefighters backed by Canadair water planes tried to bring them under control Friday.

On Thursday, a 58-year-old shepherd died as he attempted to rescue his flock. A farmer died of a heart attack as he tried to escape the fires.

Five French firemen were injured battling blazes that have destroyed more than 4,000 hectares (10,000 acres) of forest and brush on the island of Corsica. Ten houses and about 50 cars have been destroyed.

A fire service officer said one fire had been brought under control, but two others, including one near the main city of Ajaccio, were still spreading.

One of the blazes was tearing through pristine forest in the Valle Mala, northeast of Sartene.

"It's huge. The fire is moving so fast that the undergrowth is burnt while the treetops are still green," said fire chief Pierre Salinesi.

Jean-Jacques Panuzzi, head of the Corsican regional council, said seven or eight of the 12 fires reported Thursday were "criminal."

On the French mainland, the French army faced criticism after tracer fire used in a military exercise sparked a wildfire on the outskirts of Marseille.

Several fires broke out in Greece, mainly in the southern Peloponnese and on the island of Evia, destroying forests and farms.

In Turkey, more than 200 firefighters battled through the night to control a blaze which started on a dump but spread to a wood in the resort of Bodrum, the Anatolia news agency said.

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Foreign Legion shooting exercise sparks French wildfire
Marseille, France (AFP) July 23, 2009
A Foreign Legion drill instructor was suspended and taken into custody Thursday after an "imbecilic" shooting exercise led to a huge wildfire that threatened the outskirts of Marseille. No-one was killed as the blaze ripped through 1,300 hectares (3,211 acres) of brush and damaged homes in the suburbs of France's second city, but one fireman suffered burns and four rescuers were treated for ... read more

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