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Toll grows as fires sweep Portugal

By Al Goodman
CNN

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Portugal
Fire
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Lisbon (Portugal)

(CNN) -- Two more people have died in the two dozen wildfires sweeping Portugal despite the arrival in the country of international firefighting assistance, raising the overall toll to 15, officials said.

The latest fatalities reported Tuesday included an 88-year-old woman, who fled her home near Ourem in central Portugal last Thursday trying to escape the flames.

Her charred body was found Monday, Patricia Gaspar of Portugal's National Fire Coordination Center, told CNN.

Also on Monday, a 40-year-old man who was helping to fight fires near his northern village of Vila Nova de Poiares, was killed when a firefighting truck ran over him, police said.

Most of the 15 fatalities in the forest fires have been firefighters, as Portugal, like neighboring Spain, suffers from its worst drought in decades. Low humidity, high temperatures and high winds, have allowed the fires to spread rapidly.

A wildfire on Tuesday remained close to Coimbra, the historic university town that is Portugal's third-largest city, with a population of 150,000. On Monday, "the fire was actually pretty close to the center of town and some people were evacuated as a precaution," Gaspar said.

Prime Minister Jose Socrates went to Coimbra on Monday to get a first-hand look at the national firefighting operation that includes 3,000 firefighters, 800 vehicles and about 40 aircraft.

Alongside the Portuguese aircraft are various aircraft from France, Italy, Spain and Germany. Two helicopters from the Netherlands were due to arrive Tuesday to join the effort, Gaspar said.

The combination of added aerial resources and a slight drop in temperature and wind on Tuesday made the overall situation of fighting the fires somewhat "better" than on Monday, Gaspar said.

The fires, mainly in northern and central Portugal, have burned 134,500 hectares (332,000 acres) so far this year. That is more than during all of 2004, but still below the 2003 toll of 420,000 hectares (just over one million acres) burned, the worst year on record.

Only southern Portugal -- with its famed Algarve tourist beach area -- has largely escaped the fires this year.

The fires this year have destroyed about 100 homes and more than 500 farm buildings, Gaspar said.

On Sunday, Portuguese President Jose Sampaio urged businesses to release from their jobs volunteer firefighters.

Gaspar said that each of the Portugal's districts has paid "first-intervention" firefighters, but for larger fires, they are supposed to be reinforced by trained, volunteer firefighters who would otherwise be working at their usual jobs.

He had no figures on how many businesses had given temporary leave to the volunteer firefighters to help battle the blazes.

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