Wed, Jul 20, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Spanish fire under control; 11 killed

AFP , COBETA, SPAIN

A raging forest fire approaches the headquarters of a potassium mine near Castellnou de Bages, Spain, on Monday. Spain has been plagued with forest fires during this hot and dry summer.

PHOTO: AP

Firefighters yesterday brought under control a massive fire in central Spain that killed 11 volunteer firemen and destroyed vast tracts of pine forest, officials said.

Investigators meanwhile focused their probe on five youths from Madrid accused of sparking the fire Saturday by lighting a barbecue despite being warned of the risk.

The youths were being questioned by local police in a location that was being kept secret amid fears that the youths might be subjected to reprisals by the local population, police said.

The blaze, fuelled by strong winds, has swept through the drought-stricken province of Guadalajara, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of people from several villages and a resort.

Water-bombing planes were back in action yesterday in the stricken areas, but firefighters had finally managed to bring the blaze under control, an environment ministry official in the town of Mazarete told reporters.

Risky barbecue

A municipal employee was quoted in Spanish newspapers yesterday as having warned the youths not to light their barbecue in the pine forest.

"I warned them, I told them it was risky, but they didn't listen to me," said Emilio Moreno.

But the youths told him not to worry, that they knew what they were doing, and then went ahead and lit the barbecue, he said.

In the morgue in Guadalajara, the main town of the region of the same name, pathologists had by late Monday identified just two of the 11 bodies removed by helicopter from the spot where the firefighters had become trapped by the fire and died on Sunday.

The only firefighter from the group who survived, Jesus Abad, 45, was suffering from first-degree burns to the face and arms but could be released from hospital by the end of the week, hospital sources said.

Tinderbox conditions

The inferno, which has consumed between up to 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres) of very dry pine forest, is the deadliest such blaze in Spain in more than 10 years.

Spain is in the middle of its worst drought in 60 years, with temperatures regularly hitting 40?C (104?F).

Tinderbox conditions in the underbrush and forests have ratcheted up the risk of fires.

Some 50,000 hectares of forest have gone up in flames in Spain this year through the end of June, compared to around 124,000 hectares during the whole of last year, according to forestry officials.

Since the beginning of this month, with the heat and drought getting ever worse, at least another 10,000 hectares of woodland have burned to the ground around the country.

Some 100 firefighters have lost their lives battling forest fires in the last 15 years, Spanish media reported.

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