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In Argentina's ranch heartlands, dry winds fan blazes as firefighters battle for control

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BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - In the grasslands and mountainous terrain of Argentina’s Cordoba province, dry weather and strong winds are fanning blazes that are on track to outpace previous years as firefighters battle to bring the flames under control.

The fires so far this year have scorched at least 48,000 hectares in the central province, according to the national fire management service, causing damage to property and almost engulfing a space observation center.

Dramatic drone footage earlier in the week showed fires advancing across forests and dry brush of the region, with thick plumes of smoke rising in their wake. Firefighters have used helicopters and airplanes to drop water to contain the blazes.

In some areas, the fires came under control in recent days, aided by rains. The fires, however, were still on track to spread further in some zones, said Juan Pablo Arganaraz, a biologist in Cordoba who has been tracking the progress.

“There is typically around 53,000 hectares (burned) per year,” Arganaraz said of the areas of Cordoba he previously studied. “Now, among those that occurred in the month of August, we would be close to 90,000 hectares, so more than the average.”

Provincial justice officials were investigating the cause of the fires amid suspicion that they were set by ranchers clearing pastures to make way for new growth, a common practice in Argentina. The dry weather enabled the fires to spread faster.

The Cordoba fires coincide with wetland fires in Argentina’s Parana delta region, another area of concern for scientists due to its carbon-rich soil, while huge fires are engulfing wetland areas of Brazil.

Cordoba officials have moved to close transit routes to contain the flames and bring in fire-fighting equipment. Some homes had been lost in July-August, though officials said they had prevented further damage more recently.

“We’re moving heavy equipment that we have working here at Las Jarillas where we had to protect many residences. Luckily no homes have been burned; some locals have been evacuated,” said Diego Concha, director of Cordoba’s civil defense department.

Reporting by Cassandra Garrison; additional reporting by Reuters TV; Editing by Alistair Bell