By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 2, 2007
PARIS, Aug. 1 -- Thousands of tourists and residents were forced to flee ahead of raging wildfires that have engulfed parts of the Canary Islands since the weekend, the latest in a string of bizarre, weather-related calamities to hit Europe this summer.
Local officials said that at least 13,000 people evacuated homes, hotels, campgrounds and other areas of the seven Canaries, Spanish territory in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of southern Morocco. More than 86,000 acres have been burned or otherwise affected by the fires since Friday, mostly on the islands of Tenerife and Gran Canaria, according to a spokeswoman for the islands' government who was not allowed to be quoted by name.
The fires, which were "stable" but still not under control Wednesday, were stoked by winds in excess of 40 mph and temperatures over 104 degrees, the spokeswoman said. Residents of the islands, a popular European tourist destination, told the BBC that the thermometer in some spots had topped 120 degrees.
"These are the biggest fires on the archipelago in the last 10 years," Paulino Rivero, head of the regional government, told reporters. Because of the volcanic islands' rugged landscape, the fires had to be fought mostly from the air, he said, but high winds and temperatures had forced the grounding of many helicopters.
The Canary fires are the latest offspring of strange weather patterns that have buffeted Europe this summer, from unusually severe floods in England to chilly, fall-like weather in Paris, to searing heat waves, drought and wildfires in Southern and Eastern Europe.
At one extreme, six mountain climbers reportedly died of exposure in three incidents last week when temperatures in the Alps unexpectedly plunged from 50 degrees to 5 degrees, French and Italian officials said. Earlier in July, torrential rains drenched England, flooding hundreds of homes and forcing thousands of people to seek safety in shelters.
In Hungary, officials said extreme heat may have contributed to the deaths of as many as 500 elderly and infirm people in mid-July, while 30 people reportedly have died from heat-related causes in Romania, officials there said.
Dozens of houses were reportedly destroyed by forest fires in Macedonia, where President Branko Crvenkovski ordered the army to assist firefighters in battling the blazes. Two people were killed in a heat wave that struck Bulgaria, where 57,000 acres of forest and farmland burned in the last 10 days.
In Greece, where 14 people have died this summer from heatstroke, officials on Tuesday declared a drought emergency on the Cyclades Island chain, which includes the resort islands of Santorini and Mykonos. Parts of Greece have been hit by blackouts this summer as demand for electricity soared but the rivers that run hydroelectric plants dried up. Blackouts also struck Albania, Montenegro and the Kosovo region.
Hundreds of fires have swept Greece in recent weeks, burning about 150,000 acres of forest, as temperatures climbed above 110 degrees. Five firefighters have been killed in the infernos, including two pilots who died July 23 when their CL-415 Canadair firefighting plane crashed into a hillside during a water-dumping operation over the island of Evia, which hugs the eastern coast of central Greece.
The Canary Islands are renowned for their year-round mild weather, beckoning beaches and exotic wildlife. In addition to European tourists, the islands recently also have attracted large numbers of boat people and other migrants searching for a gateway to the European Union.
Recent NASA satellite photos show huge plumes of smoke streaming southwest over the Atlantic Ocean from fires in the north of Tenerife Island, where 100 homes were destroyed and 8,400 people were evacuated, and blazes in south-central Gran Canaria Island, where 50 houses burned and 5,000 people were evacuated. Fires also hit the smaller islands of La Gomera and La Palma but were under control on Wednesday, the Canaries government spokeswoman said.
There were no reports of casualties.
The Associated Press reported that 65 percent of the Palmitos wildlife park on Gran Canaria had been destroyed, and authorities feared that many toucans, orangutans and other exotic animals had perished in the flames. Some birds may have been saved by workers who opened their cages and set them free before the fire hit the park, officials said.
Juan Antonio Navarro Armas, a local forest warden on a temporary job contract, was arrested and charged with setting the blaze on Gran Canaria, police and prosecutors said. They alleged that Navarro Armas, who was one of the first to report the fire on Friday, confessed to starting the blaze after being told that his job would end in September.
Arson is also suspected in the Tenerife blaze, the islands' government spokeswoman said.
On Monday, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reported that 95 percent of the 50,000 annual fires in the Mediterranean region, which typically burn about 2.5 million acres, are caused by "arson and negligence, especially in the disposal of discarded cigarettes and the careless handling of barbecues and fires in camping sites."
Bulgarian police have arrested 14 suspected arsonists this summer. Ten people have been arrested on arson charges in Italy, which last week declared a state of disaster in the central and southern parts of the country, where fires in July ravaged about 11,000 acres of national forest and 12,500 acres of farmland.
Special correspondent Cristina Mateo-Yanguas in Madrid contributed to this report.