Firefighters work to extinguish a blaze in Foz do Arelho, Caldas da Rainha, Portugal. Twenty-five roads in the north and centre of Portugal remained closed to traffic on Monday because of the fires. (EPA photo)
LISBON, Portugal (AP) _ Late season wildfires that broke out over the weekend in Portugal have killed at least 35 people, including a 1-month-old infant, authorities said Monday, making 2017 by far the deadliest year on record for forest blazes in the country.
In neighbouring Spain, wildfires have also killed at least four people and prompted the evacuation of thousands in the northwest region of Galicia, as the remnants of winds from Hurricane Ophelia fanned the flames along Iberia’s Atlantic coast.
“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.
Alberto Nunez Feijoo, leader of Galicia, said Monday that many of the fires had started as acts of arson.
He told reporters: “All of Galicia is weeping this morning for our razed hills, but especially for the loss of human lives.”
“The only thing we desire is that these criminals pay for what they have done,” he told a news conference Monday.
He said “Galicia is fed up” with being attacked by arsonists who make the most of weather conditions, adding that some purposely tried to cause most damage by targeting urban areas.
Feijoo said that those responsible have taken advantage of the weather conditions, high winds and drought, to start them and cause more havoc.
He described those responsible as “terrorist arsonists”, and warned: “They are playing with lives.”
A number of people are said to be “under suspicion” but no arrests have yet been made.
While touring Galicia Monday, Rajoy also suggested that arson was behind the fires. “It’s impossible that this could have happened in normal conditions,” he said.
The fires returned to Portugal four months after a summer blaze claimed 64 lives in one night. The year’s current total of 99 deaths is far higher than the previous annual record of 25, in 1966.
A one-month-old baby was among the dead, the Civil Protection Agency said Monday. The infant’s body was found near Tabua, some 200 kilometers (120 miles) north of Lisbon. The parent’s bodies reportedly were found nearby. Officials did not provide further details.
Civil Protection Agency spokeswoman Patricia Gaspar said the death toll could rise.
“We are still searching burnt areas to see if there are any more victims,” Gaspar told The Associated Press.
She said 56 people were injured, 16 of them seriously, and nine people were reported missing in the blazes that broke out over the weekend.
More than 5,300 firefighters with more than 1,600 vehicles were still battling the fires through dense pine and eucalyptus forests Monday.
Most fires are set deliberately, officials say, and spread quickly due to poor forest management which leaves debris that fuels fires.