Portugal's deadly fires come under control
LISBON, Aug 9 (AFP) - Portuguese firefighters, aided by cooler overnight temperatures and higher humidity levels, gained control on Saturday of wildfires that have killed 15 people and caused nearly one billion euros (1.1 billion dollars) in damage since the end of July.
"The situation is calm across the country," the director of the National Rescue Operation Centre, Gil Martins, told a news conference.
"Fortunately we once again expect temperatures to drop significantly overnight and moisture levels in the air to rise," he added.
As of 6:00 pm (1700 GMT) there were 18 fires burning across the country, but none of the blazes was a cause for concern, Martins said.
Over 100 firefighters, equipped with water-dropping aircraft, were tackling the country's largest wildfire, near the town of Pampilhosa da Serra, located some 200 kilometres (125 miles) northeast of Lisbon, he said.
In total, some 1,500 firefighters were currently either battling existing fires or were monitoring forests for signs of new blazes.
Portugal, one the European Union's poorest countries and a major producer of wood and paper, has been stricken by what has been dubbed the country's worst fire tragedy ever.
The resulting billion-euro burden is underscored by the fact, according to authorities, that an estimated 30 percent of the fires have been deliberately set.
"This figure is not an upper limit," Interior Minister Antonio Figueiredo Lopes told a press conference. "Unfortunately the figures are rising every day as fires continue."
The blazes have ravaged thousands of hectares of woodlands, disrupted power supplies and phone services, cut roads and destroyed dozens of homes.
Roughly 200,000 hectares (494,000 acres) of woodland have been lost to flames so far this year, most of it since July, according to the latest forest service estimate released on Friday.
Local officials and a number of forest experts however say the total burnt area is much higher.
Forest industries such as pulp, paper and cork account for three percent of Portugal's gross domestic product (GDP) and 11 percent of the nation's exports.
The European Commission, the exective arm of the European Union, said Friday it could provide immediate help for urgent needs, such as the clearing of roads and the restoration of electrical power, but needed concrete proposals from Lisbon before it could provide longer-term assistance.
But EU Social Affairs Commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou, who visited Portugal on Friday to inspect the fire damage, said long-term aid could become available as soon as October if Lisbon quickly presented Brussels with such proposals.
Portugal, now facing a long road to recovery of its natural resources, is also strapped with a recession and a public deficit which threatens to once again violate EU budget rules.
Police have detained 52 suspected arsonists across the country in recent weeks as part of their investigation into the wave of wildfires, state television RTP reported.
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Received by NewsEdge Insight: 08/09/2003 15:52:57
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