Portugal tries to contain fatal fires, probes plane crash

AP News
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Posted: Jun 20, 2017 2:49 PM
Portugal tries to contain fatal fires, probes plane crash

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Emergency services in Portugal said Tuesday they were making headway in controlling a major wildfire that killed 64 people in the central area of the country, but the welcome news came as another blaze nearby grew in size and amid conflicting reports that a water-dropping plane might have crashed.

Maria Jose Andre of Portugal's Air Accident Office said she had been told by the Civil Protection Agency that a Canadair water-dropping plane had crashed in central Portugal while fighting the wildfires. Her office immediately sent a crash investigation team to the area.

But officials with the Portuguese government and the Civil Protection Agency said they could not confirm the crash.

Vitor Vaz Pinto, a Civil Protection Agency spokesman, said airborne search-and-rescue teams are looking for wreckage among the smoke-shrouded hills where wildfires are still raging.

He said all 13 planes hired by the agency to help fight the blazes are accounted for, but a total of 30 water-dropping aircraft are engaged in battling the blazes, some operating under bilateral agreements with the Portuguese government and others as part of a European Union cooperation agreement.

An abandoned caravan containing gas bottles had exploded in the same area and sent up a fireball, he said, suggesting that may have misled people into thinking there was a crash.

A source with the European Commission who declined to be identified according to internal protocol said that all seven planes provided under an EU civil protection mechanism are accounted for.

The Civil Protection Agency said about 1,200 firefighters and nine water-dropping aircraft were fighting the deadly wildfire in Pedrogao Grande, which was raging for a third consecutive day about 150 kilometers (90 miles) north of Lisbon. Officials said the blaze was mostly contained, though still burning fiercely.

Some firefighting resources were being diverted to Gois, about 20 kilometers from Pedrogao Grande, where almost 800 firefighters and four planes were battling flames. Vaz Pinto told reporters the Gois wildfire was "very fast and very explosive" and had forced the evacuation of 11 hill villages.

Temperatures forecast to reach 43 degrees Celsius (109 Fahrenheit), gusting winds and bone-dry woodland were fueling the blazes, Vaz Pinto said.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Antonio Costa ordered an investigation into what happened on Saturday night when the deaths occurred, 47 of them on a road as people fled the flames.

Costa's order asked three questions: whether extreme weather could explain the scale of the disaster, why emergency services communications at times didn't work, and why the road where the deaths occurred was not closed.

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Aritz Parra in Madrid contributed to this report.