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Villagers Angry as Portugal Wildfire Still Rages

Firefighters drive through smoke from a forest fire in Chaveira, Portugal, July 22, 2019.
Firefighters drive through smoke from a forest fire in Chaveira, Portugal, July 22, 2019.

Updated at 7:30pm EDT.

After more than 50 hours, firefighters were still battling a wildfire in central Portugal late on Monday, as villagers and local authorities blamed a lack of resources and government inaction for the damage caused by the flames.

So far, 39 people had been injured, including one who was in serious condition. Portugal's Civil Protection department said some villagers had been evacuated as a precaution and houses had been destroyed.

The fire was small in comparison with a massive blaze that hit the same region in June 2017, killing 64 people and burning about 55,000 hectares (136,000 acres) in a few days. That was the worst disaster in modern Portuguese history.

Data from the European Union fire-mapping service showed about 8,500 hectares (21,000 acres) burned over the weekend.

Civil Protection said earlier on Monday that the fire, which broke out on Saturday afternoon, was 90% under control, but warned that the remaining blazes required "a lot of attention" as the winds whipped up later in the day, fanning the flames in tinder-dry conditions.

By evening, the fire was only 70% under control because of the strong winds and high temperatures, Civil Protection commander Pedro Nunes said, adding there were currently no homes or villages at risk.

"The worst-case scenario happened," said Nunes. He said firefighters would adopt techniques overnight to put out the flames, including using four bulldozers provided by the armed forces.

Even though humidity is expected to remain low, the wind is set to lose strength in the early hours of Tuesday, which could help firefighters end the wildfire, Nunes added.

Covered in eucalyptus and pine trees, central Portugal is frequently hit by summer blazes, with hilly terrain making it especially difficult for firefighters to reach.

'There Was No One'

Villagers, as well as authorities in Macao and Vila de Rei, areas in the heart of the fire zone, said there were not enough firefighters and resources to combat the flames.

Sheep farmer Joaquim Ribeiro told Reuters there were no firefighters when the blaze arrived at his village in Macao, forcing him to transfer his animals elsewhere. "It was pandemonium."

Another sheep farmer, Fernando Cardoso, said he rushed to a nearby fire station as the flames approached his village but the firefighters told him they could not help until given the green light.

"The fire appeared out of nowhere," he said. "When we got here, there were flames everywhere, no place to turn, no firefighters, there was no one."

Local authorities have also pointed the finger at Portugal's Socialist government, led by Prime Minister Antonio Costa.

Speaking to Lusa news agency, the deputy mayor of Vila de Rei, Paulo Cesar, accused the government of not being able to prevent wildfires.

"The municipality is fed up with these successive fires linked to criminal activity and is fed up of seeing the state fail again," he said.

Asked by reporters about the complaints, Costa said the mayors were "primarily responsible" for protecting their own municipalities from wildfires through "proper management of their territory."

Internal Administration Minister Eduardo Cabrita said police had opened an investigation into the fires. Portugal's judiciary police have collected evidence and artifacts that could be related to the fires' origin, an official told Lusa news agency.

In a statement, police said a 55-year-old man was detained on suspicion of starting a blaze in the Portuguese district of Castelo Branco. But a police source, quoted by Portuguese newspaper Observador, said the detention was not related to the fires in question.

The police did not reply to a Reuters request for comment.

Civil Protection said 1,079 firefighters were on the ground, backed up by 347 firefighting vehicles.

Spain said late on Monday that it was sending two aircraft to help tackle the fires in Portugal.

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