Fires ignite on Spain's Canary Islands

August 3, 2009 12:21:36 PM PDT
Strong winds fanned forest fires for a second day Sunday on the Spanish Canary Island of La Palma, and firefighters were forced to retreat as flames raged out of control near two towns.Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero visited areas affected by fire and viewed firefighting efforts on the island late Sunday.

"I'm conscious of the damage done; I've witnessed it myself," Zapatero said, adding that he hoped better news would be coming soon.

A large plume of smoke could be seen rising from the 706 sq. kilometer (273 sq. mile) island's southern tip where fires were active on two fronts. Fire-tracing satellites showed the smoke was visible from Earth orbit and trailed many kilometers, blotting out the neighboring island of La Gomera.

La Palma is one of the least developed and most verdant of the Canary Islands, off West Africa, and was praised by pop star Madonna in her song "La Isla Bonita."

The island is home to many archeologically valuable sites, including remnants of prehistoric human dwellings places as well as very early art.

Firefighters on the eastern side of the island had to pull back due to intense fires near the towns of Fuencaliente and Tigalete, regional government security counselor Jose Miguel Ruano said.

About 500 firefighters have been deployed along with seven water-dropping aircraft.

Some 4,000 residents were evacuated from the area Saturday. Flames have so far destroyed about 50 homes in Fuencaliente, according to the mayor, Gregorio Alonso. Several small wineries that once made artisan-quality wines from the region's renowned Malvasia grapevines have also been lost to the flames.

Canary wine has been famous since William Shakespeare's time and the poet referred to it several times in his play "Merry Wives of Windsor."

Tigalete is home to around 2,000 German families, many of them retired, said Jose Perez, German consul on the island. Many were among those evacuated.

Officials were worried the fire could spread north toward Caldera de Taburiente national park, home to several endangered native species such as the Canary Islands Juniper.

Environment counselor Vladimiro Rodriguez said several fires started almost simultaneously, usually a sign they could be man-made. Around 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) had been destroyed by fire by midday Sunday.

A fire on the nearby island of La Gomera - the second in two days - was brought under control.


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