Spain: Catalonia battles worst wildfire in 20 years amid heatwave

The still-raging blaze has devoured more than 5,500 hectares of land, forcing people to evacuate and killing animals.

    Hilly terrain, high temperatures and strong winds have frustrated firefighters' efforts to contain the blaze [Jordi Borras/AP]
    Hilly terrain, high temperatures and strong winds have frustrated firefighters' efforts to contain the blaze [Jordi Borras/AP]

    Catalan firefighters are battling the worst wildfire the Spanish region has seen in 20 years as Europe swelters in the grip of an intense heatwave.

    Hundreds of firefighters struggled to contain a wildfire in the northeastern region of Catalonia on Friday that has scorched more than 5,500 hectares of land and forced the evacuation of some 53 residents.

    A day earlier, authorities warned that the blaze, which began on Wednesday afternoon, could easily devour 20,000 hectares if it was not contained.

    A military unit with 230 specialists joined local firefighters on Thursday, toiling overnight to control the blaze in the Tarragona province.

    In a statement on Friday morning, the Catalan regional government said while progress had been made to contain the fire, it was not yet fully extinguished and operations would continue with the support of planes and helicopters dropping water on the flames.

    European heatwave: Wildfires burn across Spain

    Authorities described the blaze as the worst in Catalonia in two decades. In comments to local radio station Catalunya Radio, Interior Minister Miquel Buch recalled a "hard night" made worse by the province's hilly terrain. 

    "The difficulties are such that we can't talk about a fire that is under control or in the extinction phase, but rather that we're at a moment when the blaze is getting bigger". 

    Buch added that authorities suspect the cause of the outbreak was a deposit of improperly-stored chicken manure at a farm in the village of La Torre de l'Espanyol that high temperatures caused to combust.

    Firefighters said that temperatures over 30 degrees Celsius, low humidity and high winds fanned the flames, helping the fire to spread.

    'Critical' situation

    Many evacuees told the Spanish media that they had fled the flames with just the clothes on their backs.

    "All I took with me were my car keys, my mobile phone, my wallet and my dogs. Nothing else," one unidentified man told Spain's Telecinco TV channel.

    Around 30 people, including British and German residents, spent a second night huddled in a school in the village of Flix on Thursday, local media reported.

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    Emergency services have ordered the roughly 250 residents of the nearby village of the Bovera and some 900 people in Maials village to stay indoors to avoid inhaling the poisonous smoke spewed by the fire.

    The charred land includes vineyards, olive groves and fruit orchards. A farm burned down in La Torre de l'Espanyol, killing more than 200 sheep and at least two horses, according to an AFP news agency's photographer at the scene.

    The fire raged just seven kilometres from the Asco nuclear plant, but officials said the site was not at risk since winds were blowing the flames away from it and it was located on the other side of a river.

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    Residents have been forced to flee and warned to stay inside to avoid inhaling poisonous smoke [Pau Barrena/AFP]

    However, Catalan President Quim Torra warned that Friday was expected to be the hottest day of the heatwave and that "the situation will be critical" in all of Catalonia.

    He announced on Thursday night that the harvesting of crops would be banned for 48 hours to avoid accidentally sparking fires, and that access to mountains and a national park would be restricted as a precaution as long as the high temperatures continue. Several roads were also closed. 

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    Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, currently attending the G20 summit in Japan expressed his concern about the situation on Wednesday and thanked emergency services and troops for their efforts.

    The fire comes amid a record-breaking heatwave in Europe that has seen traffic restrictions, school closures and forest fires in several countries. 

    Meteorologists blame a blast of hot air from northern Africa for scorching temperatures early in the European summer, which could send thermometers towards 40 Celsius in France, Spain and Greece on Friday. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies