BUENOS AIRES Firefighters battled forest fires in Argentina's Patagonia region on Thursday, but thousand-year-old trees in a national park were not threatened by the flames, a provincial official said.
The fire, which government officials blamed on arsonists, started in the Alerces National Park, raising fears about damage to the park's famous Patagonian cypress trees. The trees can live for 2,000 years or more, making some of them among the oldest living things on Earth.
"The national park is totally under control. There's no fire and the firefighters are doing the ground maintenance work to make sure it doesn't catch fire again," provincial government spokesman Daniel Taito said by telephone.
However, he said the flames had ravaged some 7,400 acres
of mostly native woodland beyond the borders of the national park, which lies in the Andean region of Chubut province near the Chilean border.
Local officials ordered the few residents of the sparsely populated area to evacuate their homes.
Environment Secretary Romina Picolotti, who visited the scene, said action was being taken "to find the culprits of this arson."
Television images showed smoke obscuring the enormous green forest and flames shifting with the wind.
Chubut Gov. Mario Das Neves said the fires began a few days ago and intensified late on Wednesday as strong winds combined with unusually hot, dry weather conditions.
The province declared a state of emergency in the five districts affected by the wildfires and earmarked 2 million pesos ($628,000) to handle the disaster.
($1 = 3.185 Argentine pesos)
(Reporting by Cesar Illiano and Helen Popper)