March 26, 2019 / 2:50 PM / 6 months ago

Strong winds hamper firefighters tackling Portuguese wildfires

LISBON (Reuters) - Hundreds of firefighters were battling a cluster of wildfires in northern Portugal on Tuesday, with strong winds and unexpected high temperatures making it tougher for authorities to put out the flames.

With no rain in sight and temperatures above usual for this time of year, reaching 28 degrees Celsius in some regions on Monday, Portugal has been on high alert for wildfires since the beginning of the week.

The weather conditions resemble those that caused a devastating wildfire in the central town of Pedrogao Grande in June 2017, killing 64 people and injuring more than 250. The fire was the worst disaster in modern Portuguese history.

Usually, crews are on alert for wildfires from May but on Tuesday evening there were already eight active fires across the country, mostly in the north. The fires have flared earlier as temperatures have risen.

The most aggressive wildfire has been raging in the municipality of Oliveira de Azemeis since the early hours, with 450 firefighters on the ground battling four active fronts.

“We have a very serious problem to solve because the fire has got a new front as a result of strong winds,” said Joaquim Ferreira, head of the local Civil Protection department, quoted by Portuguese news agency Lusa. “The fire is becoming very large and intense.”

Firefighters will work overnight to try to extinguish the wildfire but strong winds are likely to hinder the operation.

The temperature in the northern river city of Porto, near the coast, but not far from the fire, was around 20C on Tuesday, compared with a March average of 12C.

“This meteorological scenario means an increase in the fire risk index from Monday until Wednesday with favorable conditions for the rapid spread of fires throughout the mainland, with high to very high levels,” the Civil Protection said on its website.

In the district of Esposende, also in northern Portugal, a wildfire on Tuesday forced authorities to evacuate two schools due to high levels of smoke. Two main roads in the district were also shut.

Around 75 firefighters battled the wildfire in Esposense, which started on Tuesday morning, but has since been put out.

A fire in Vila Nova de Gaia, near Porto, edged close to people’s homes, but that was brought under control.

Reporting by Catarina Demony; Editing by Axel Bugge and Alison Williams

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