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Wildfires kill at least 35 people in Portugal, and 4 in Spain

Forest fire in Marinha Grande, Portugal - 16 Oct 2017
Firefighters combat a forest fire in Gaeiras, Marinha Grande, in Portugal, on Oct. 16, 2017.
(Tiago Petinga / European Pressphoto Agency)

A spate of wildfires in Portugal has killed at least 35 people, including a 1-month-old infant, authorities said Monday, making this year by far the deadliest on record for forest blazes in the country.

In neighboring Spain, wildfires killed at least four people and prompted the evacuation of thousands in the northwestern region of Galicia, as the remnants of winds from Hurricane Ophelia fanned the flames along Iberia’s Atlantic coast.

The late-season fires returned to Portugal four months after a summer blaze claimed 64 lives in one night. This year’s current total of 99 deaths is far higher than the country’s previous annual record of 25, in 1966.

A 1-month-old baby was among the dead, the Civil Protection Agency said Monday. The child was found near Tabua, some 125 miles north of Lisbon, and the bodies of the parents reportedly were found nearby. Officials did not provide further details.

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More than 50 people were injured, 15 of them seriously, and nine people were reported missing in the blazes that broke out over the weekend, according to the Civil Protection Agency.

More than 5,300 firefighters with more than 1,600 vehicles were still battling the fires raging through dense pine and eucalyptus forests Monday.

Portugal endures widespread forest blazes every summer. Most fires are set deliberately, officials say, and spread quickly because of poor forest management, which leaves debris that fuels fires.

Emergency services recorded 523 wildfires Sunday, the highest number in a single day this year and the highest on one day in more than a decade. “You don’t see that in any other country in the world,” said Civil Protection Agency spokeswoman Patricia Gaspar.

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A prolonged drought has made the calamity worse this year.

“We have all our firefighters out there doing everything they can,” said Home Affairs Minister Constanca Urbano de Sousa, who is in charge of emergency services and has been the target of criticism for her handling of the tragedy.

She said climate change has brought an additional factor into the battle against woodland fires. Because of climate change, “large-scale catastrophes are now a reality all over the world,” Urbano de Sousa said. That meant more effort has to be put into preventive measures, she said.

Spain’s prime minister focused on criminal intent, and said authorities were certain the fires were caused by arsonists.

“What we are seeing here doesn’t happen accidentally. This has been induced,” Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who is from Galicia, said during a visit to a Galician fire department.

Officials in both countries said they expected that rain and cooler weather forecast for later Monday would help put out the fires.

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UPDATES:

10:40 a.m.: Updated with an increase in the Portugal wildfires death toll, from 32 to 35.

This article was originally published at 10:35 a.m.


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