More than 1,000 evacuated in southern Portugal as wildfires rage

High temperatures and strong winds hamper battle against wildfires, with conditions expected to remain challenging in the coming days.

Personnel of the Protection and Relief Intervention Group (GIPS) specialised in combating forest fires, arrive to battle a wildfire in Reguengo, Portalegre district, south of Portugal, on August 8, 2023. - Hundreds of firefighters are fighting today against a wildfire that has been raging for four days southwestern Portugal which, like its neighbor Spain, is suffering an episode of intense heat wave that puts most of the Iberian Peninsula on alert
Hundreds of firefighters are fighting against a wildfire that has been raging for four days in southern Portugal [Patricia De Melo Moreira/AFP]

Hundreds of firefighters are battling a wildfire in southern Portugal that has been raging for four days, scorching thousands of hectares and forcing the evacuation of about 1,400 people.

The wildfire started on Saturday in the municipality of Odemira, in the Alentejo region, but has since spread south towards the Algarve, one of Portugal’s top tourist destinations.

High temperatures and strong winds have hampered efforts by the firefighters and six water-dousing planes to extinguish the flames, which have destroyed some 7,000 hectares (17,297 acres), including large areas of highly flammable pine and eucalyptus trees.

Jose Ribeiro, regional commander of the emergency and civil protection authority (ANPC), said weather conditions were expected to remain challenging.

A helicopter fights a wildfire in Reguengo, Portalegre district, south of Portugal, on August 8, 2023. - Hundreds of firefighters are fighting today against a wildfire that has been raging for four days southwestern Portugal
A helicopter fights a wildfire in Reguengo, Portalegre district, south of Portugal [Patricia De Melo Moreira/AFP]

Shortly before sunset on Monday, the sky in Odemira turned dark as a huge smoke cloud filled the air.

By Tuesday afternoon, the fire in Odemira had destroyed about 7,000 hectares (17,297 acres), which corresponds to approximately 10,000 football pitches.

A total of 55 people, mainly emergency personnel, were injured in recent days, officials said.

Odemira’s mayor, Helder Guerreiro, called the situation “critical, difficult and complex”, while Ribeiro said the perimeter of the fire had been contained for now but there was still work ahead to bring it under control.

“It is a worrying situation,” Ribeiro told reporters on Tuesday, adding there were two active fronts, with one heading to Monchique, a lush green mountainous area in the Algarve’s countryside.

The recent spate of wildfires came as temperatures have spiked. On Monday, the city of Santarem, about 80 kilometres (50 miles) northeast of the capital, Lisbon, set the year’s highest temperature at 46.4C (115.5F).

Temperatures are forecast to fall nationwide from Tuesday, though they will mostly remain above 30C (86F).

Fire breaks

Andre Fernandes, ANPC’s national commander, said bulldozers were being used to build fire breaks and prevent the blaze from spreading further. Monchique, which last burned in 2018, is popular among locals and tourists due to its thermal springs and hotels.

Approximately 20 villages, one of them in Monchique, four tourist accommodations and a camping site have been evacuated as a precaution. Several roads have also been blocked off. There are currently several wildfires burning across Portugal but Odemira is the most worrying, Fernandes said.

This year, most southern European countries have been grappling with record-breaking temperatures during the peak tourist season, prompting authorities to warn of health risks. Scientists have said heatwaves are becoming more frequent, intense and spread out across seasons due to climate change.

Three districts in northern Portugal were placed under red alert on Tuesday. Temperatures were expected to hit 41C (105.8F) in the northern city of Castelo Branco. Authorities said more than 120 Portuguese municipalities, including in Lisbon, Alentejo and Algarve, are at maximum risk of wildfires.

“The weather conditions we are going to experience in the coming days means any small occurrence [fire] could become a big one,” Civil Protection Secretary of State Patricia Gaspar told a news conference.

Source: News Agencies