Thousands flee as fires ravage southern France and Portugal

Marseille firemen battle to tackle the flames as they head for the city, France's second largest. Picture: AP
Marseille firemen battle to tackle the flames as they head for the city, France's second largest. Picture: AP
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Fires whipped by high winds have ravaged swathes of southern France and Portugal, killing at least four people, burning scores of homes and forcing the evacuation of thousands of people, including tourists.

In France, multiple fires formed a column heading toward the Mediterranean port city of Marseille, while hundreds of miles away, a fire swept overnight into Funchal, the capital of Portugal’s Madeira Islands, killing three elderly people and leaving more than 300 with minor burns and smoke inhalation.

A forest watchman was killed on the mainland during the night when one of more than 100 blazes engulfed the caravan he was sleeping in 95 miles north of Lisbon.

Two people were reported injured, one seriously, as the fire in southern France moved toward Marseille, firefighters said, and 20 to 25 homes were burned. At least 6,670 acres of land were devastated. Four firefighters were injured, three seriously, battling a separate blaze in the nearby Herault region – brought under control as was a fire in an industrial area outside Marseille that stocks oil and petrochemicals.

Marseille airport rerouted incoming flights to make way for firefighting aircraft.

Thick layers of ochre-colored smoke dimmed the afternoon skies of sun-drenched Marseille, while black plumes rose above Vitrolles and Pennes-Mirabeau.

“It was a scene really like the end of the world,” Caroline Vidal, a Vitrolles resident said, describing the scene as she fled her home to her grandmother’s house and saw people running on the main road to escape.

Assistant prefect Yves Rousset, asked at a pre-dawn meeting with reporters in Marseille, whether the fire might reach the city overnight, said: “We can never say there will be no risk, but we’re doing everything so it doesn’t.”

Firefighting aircraft were restarting duty at daybreak, while the battle continued on the ground.

Firefighters in both countries battled multiple blazes fanned by high winds and fed by brush in a hot, dry summer, considered fire season in both countries. A total of 186 wildfires were counted on Portugal’s mainland. The blazes were exceptionally powerful in both countries, roaring through Madeira and southern France at the height of the tourist season – a mainstay of the economy of the islands, off northwest Africa.

Portugal’s National Civil Protection Service reported 14 major wildfires burning out of control ion the mainland where almost 4,500 firefighters were in action, supported by 28 water-dumping aircraft and 1,300 vehicles. Desperate, the government requested help from other EU countries.

The Madeira fire forced the evacuation of more than 1,000 residents and tourists in the islands. Many described chaotic nighttime scenes, with people fleeing the flames by car at high speed on the wrong side of the road.

Miguel Albuquerque, head of Madeira’s regional government, said the three local victims died in their burned homes early on Wednesday as the wildfire hit the coastal city in the dark. He said two other people were seriously hurt and one person went missing.

At least 37 houses and a five-star hotel had burned down.

In southern France, more than 1,000 people were evacuated in several towns, notably Vitrolles, about 15 miles north of Marseille where some homes were burned down, and in nearby Pennes-Mirabeau.

“The fire is progressing fast,” deputy Marseille mayor Julien Ruas said, adding that firewalls had been set up on the corridor leading toward the city, but if the fire passed those “it will move toward the northern neighbourhoods.”