Fires ravage Madeira islands and mainland Portugal

LISBON Thu Jul 19, 2012 10:20pm IST

LISBON (Reuters) - Wildfires forced the evacuation of dozens of villagers from their homes on the Portuguese archipelago of Madeira on Thursday and authorities sent teams from the mainland to help overwhelmed local firefighters.

Cash-strapped Portugal, which is under an EU/IMF bailout, had suffered from a severe drought this year before being hit by scorching summer temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius this week, triggering intense forest blazes on the mainland too.

In mainland southern Portugal's Algarve region, over 300 firefighters were struggling to put out wildfires near Tavira - a popular holiday destination near the Spanish border. Authorities have deployed planes and helicopters to combat the flames, including an aircraft sent by Spain's civil defense.

The Interior Ministry sent a military transport plane with 83 firefighters to Madeira, where the flames briefly threatened the outskirts of the region's capital and popular tourist destination Funchal on Wednesday night. Interior Minister Miguel Macedo also flew to Madeira to coordinate the efforts.

While Funchal itself was mostly out of danger on Thursday, television footage from the archipelago's smaller island of Porto Santo showed houses catching fire and firemen telling villagers of Camacha to abandon the area.

"The changing wind is strongly compromising the effort to put out the flames, and we only have five firemen there and one truck," fire brigade chief Afonso Nobrega told Lusa news agency.

SIC television showed a local man shouting for help to get three women out of a building whose door was in flames. Enveloped in heavy smoke, local residents desperately sprayed water on the outside of their homes while others ran to flee the flames.

There have been no reports of deaths of serious injuries.

Portugal has had relatively few forest fires in the past two years as temperatures were low and rainfall high. But this year's drought, coupled with scorching weather, poses a threat that fires will escalate during the hottest period in late July and August.

(Reporting by Andrei Khalip; Editing by Alison Williams)

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