Wildfires rage in western Spain, Canary islands

August 5, 2012 - 3:37 PM
APTOPIX Spain Wildfire

In this photo taken on Saturday, Aug. 4, 2012, a man looks out from inside a house threatened by wildfire in La Palma, Spain. Wildfires fanned by fierce winds and high temperatures raged across Spain's Canary Islands of La Palma and La Gomera on Sunday. Flames are threatening to cut off La Gomera's phone communications and have forced the evacuation of hundreds of people. (AP Photo/Juan Arturo)

MADRID (AP) — Wildfires fanned by fierce winds and high temperatures raged across a western Spanish region and on the Canary Islands on Sunday, threatening to cut off phone contact with one island, killing an emergency worker and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of people, officials said.

A 35-year-old man from an army emergency services unit died in a vehicle accident while battling the wildfires in the Extremadura region, and three others were injured. A fourth firefighter had to be treated after inhaling smoke.

Extremadura Interior Ministry spokesman German Lopez Iglesias said about 300 vacationers had to be evacuated from a campsite in the heavily wooded hills of the Sierra de Gata area near the Portuguese border.

Forest fires were also raging on the Canary Islands of La Gomera and La Palma and there were hundreds more evacuations there, said Javier Gonzalez Ortiz, a security official for the islands off the northwest coast of Africa.

A statement on the Canary Islands government website said a large fire had affected the southeastern area around Villa de Mazo in La Palma, where some 70 people had been moved to safety by the Red Cross and close to 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres) had been affected by flames.

"Firefighters are finding the greatest difficulty in La Gomera," and at least 600 people had been evacuated, the statement said.

Nancy Melo, an agricultural technician for La Gomera's winemaking authority, said residents from five villages had been ordered from their homes and flames were rising up to the center of the island near the Garajonay National Park.

"The fire has now entered the park and the problem is that area is where the island's telecommunications antennas are located," she said. "When the flames reach them we'll be left without communications."

Garajonay was declared a national park in 1981 and a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986 and is a very rare example of the type of humid subtropical forest that once covered almost all of Europe before the arrival of man.

The causes of the fires are unknown, but several days of high temperatures have contributed to dry conditions throughout Spain, even on the normally verdant La Palma — one of the least developed and greenest of the Canary Islands.

La Palma suffered a large fire in August 2009, and vineyard owner Antonio Eliseo Carballo said the new outbreak was raging on steep hillsides southeast of the island's dormant San Antonio volcano.

"This year we haven't had much rain, we measured just 4.3 inches, no more," he said. "This is a disaster."

Pop singer Madonna praised La Palma by its local name in her 1987 song "La Isla Bonita."