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Thousands flee from ‘monster’ wildfire on Canary Islands

/ 09:10 PM August 20, 2019
 View of wildfire on Canary Islands

The fire on the mountains of the Canary Islands in this view taken from Santa Cruz de Tenerife island, Spain, early Monday, Aug. 19, 2019. Authorities on Spain’s Canary Islands say around 4,000 people have been evacuated due to a wildfire that has ravaged more than 1,700 hectares (4,200 acres) since it broke out a day ago. (Photo by ANDRES GUTIERREZ / AP)

LISBON, Portugal — A major, out-of-control wildfire in Spain’s Canary Islands was throwing flames 50 meters (160 feet) into the air on Monday, forcing emergency workers to evacuate more than 9,000 people, authorities said.

The blaze — described by the local fire department as “a monster” — was racing across parched woodlands into Tamadaba Natural Park, regarded as one of the jewels on Gran Canaria, a mountainous volcanic island in the Atlantic Ocean archipelago off northwest Africa.

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Famous for its beaches and mountains, Gran Canaria and its capital, Las Palmas, are popular European vacation destinations but the blaze was in a rugged inland area known as the central highlands. Some tourists had to leave rural hotels as a precaution and were moved to other holiday accommodations, the island’s government said.

Tourists on the coast could see billowing clouds of gray smoke being blown out to sea. Las Palmas international airport was working normally, authorities said.

Canary Islands President Ángel Víctor Torres said 1,100 firefighters were being deployed in shifts along with 16 water-dropping aircraft to battle the blaze that started Saturday afternoon. The local government said around 6,000 hectares (14,800 acres) had been charred in just 48 hours, villages were evacuated and two dozen roads were closed.

Emergency workers faced huge flames and gusting winds that blew embers into the air, starting secondary fires, local fire officials said. Summer temperatures Monday were expected to hit 36°C (nearly 97°F) and climb to 38°C (100°F) later this week.

The Spanish caretaker government’s farm minister, Luis Planas, told a news conference in Las Palmas that Madrid sent a “cutting-edge” drone to the island that can livestream images of the fire at night. One aircraft on Gran Canaria also coordinated aviation movements to prevent an accident in the busy skies, he said.

Planas said the official response to the fire on Gran Canaria was one of the greatest firefighting deployments recently in all of Spain.

Gran Canaria is the third-largest island in the Canary Islands archipelago, which is 150 kilometers (93 miles) west of Africa. About 50 kilometers (31 miles) in diameter, Gran Canaria has a population of 850,000.

Wildfires are common in southern Europe during the parched summer months but changing lifestyles and the emptying out of rural areas have made woodlands more vulnerable, experts say.

Gran Canaria emergency chief Frederico Grillo said recent blazes on the island are much worse now than when families worked in the countryside and kept the forests more orderly, private news agency Europa Press reported.

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He said if the island’s entire annual budget was used for forest fire prevention, it would only be possible to clear brush from 30% of its woodlands and there would still be large amounts of inaccessible areas due to the island’s steep mountains and deep ravines.

/atm

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