Forest fires ravage mainland Portugal, Madeira calmer after deaths

LISBON/FUNCHAL, Portugal (Reuters) - Thousands of Portuguese firefighters struggled on Thursday to control nearly 200 forest fires after flames killed at least four people on the mainland and the island of Madeira the previous day.

Prime Minister Antonio Costa cut short his holidays and flew to Madeira, where more than 200 buildings in the regional capital and popular resort Funchal had been destroyed or damaged and some 1,000 people including tourists evacuated.

“We understand the dimension of this horrible tragedy that devastated various municipalities here in Madeira, and we also know about the calamities affecting other zones of the country that now have to be addressed,” he told reporters.

Some 260 people remained in makeshift shelters on Thursday, but the regional government said that all tourists were either back in their hotels or had been transferred to others. A five-star resort near Funchal had been completely destroyed by fire.

“We have to move on to the next phase - to rebuild what’s been destroyed, return to normalcy, rebuild the confidence in Madeira as a major tourism destination,” Costa said.

On mainland Portugal, over 4,200 firefighters backed by 30 aircraft, including several sent by Italy, Spain and Morocco, were trying to put out blazes that had been set off amid a heat wave and fanned by strong winds to scorch mostly the wooded north of the country.

A Spanish pilot flying a water bomber in northern Portugal left an Instagram photograph of thick plumes of smoke surrounding wind energy towers on a hill below his wing, with a caption: “This is the largest inferno I have seen in my life.”

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Police have said that various fires were lit by arsonists and they arrested several suspects, including one in Madeira.

Provisional data from the Forestry Preservation Institute, cited by local media, showed that blazes destroyed about 260 square km (100 sq miles) of forests just in the first nine days of August, which is more than in some full years recently.

Summer forest fires are common in Portugal, which in 2003 suffered its deadliest blazes, killing 19 people and destroying around 10 percent of the country’s forests on over 2,100 sq km.

Elsewhere in Europe, forest fires raged in Spain’s northwestern Galicia region near Portugal and in parts of France’s Mediterranean coast on Thursday, with the worst in almost two decades burning around Marseille.

Additional reporting by Marco Trujillo; Editing by Hugh Lawson