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10 fires burn across Spain

By CNN Madrid Bureau Chief Al Goodman

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A villager battles a wildfire in the village of Pazos de Rabade, near Ourense, northwestern Spain.

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MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- At least 10 fires are burning across Spain -- although numerous others have been under control or extinguished -- and the Civil Guard announced it had arrested 99 people since June on suspicion of starting forest fires.

The Environment Ministry said 107,500 hectares (265,000 acres) have burned in forest fires this year through August 14, the second worst year in a decade, just behind the 125,000 hectares (308,000 acres) that had burned by the same date in 2003.

The wildfires this year have killed 17 people -- including a group of 11 firefighters in July who were trapped by a fast-moving fire in Guadalajara province just east of Madrid, the Civil Guard said in a statement Tuesday.

The fires also have forced the evacuation, at least temporarily, of 2,786 people and 750 homes, the Civil Guard said.

"More than 90 percent of the forest fires are provoked, either through negligence or by intention," Environment Minister Cristina Narbona said Tuesday in an interview with Spanish radio network SER, that was monitored by CNN.

"The biggest problem," Narbona added, "is the depopulation of the rural areas. So people are less involved with the rural areas" and there is less on-site day-to-day monitoring and care of the forests by local people.

The Socialist government has sent a bill to Parliament that would prohibit for 30 years the rezoning of land use in burned forests, in an attempt to reduce temptations to start forest fires in the hopes of making financial gains by building housing or industrial parks soon after on the burned land.

The government also is working on longer term solutions to spur rural development and jobs so that people will want to continue to live on farms and in small towns, Narbona said.

But the drought in Spain, where the nation's dams are on average now holding water levels at less than 50 percent capacity, has sparked a national debate in Spain on why the fires are raging, when the nation faced a similar crisis just two years ago.

On Tuesday, the hardest hit region was still northwest Galicia -- just north of Portugal -- where seven fires were burning. Others were burning in eastern Tarragona province near Barcelona, in Valencia, and northern Leon province.

The Environment Ministry said there have been 13,219 wildfires though August 14 this year, about 40 percent of them involving more than 1 hectare (2.471 acre) of land, while the others involved less than a hectare.

The Civil Guard said it had determined the causes of 829 forest fires, and only 27 percent were due to natural causes. The rest were due to accidents (27 percent), negligence (29 percent) -- including from cigarettes or agricultural burnings that got out of control -- or arson (15 percent).

Spanish law authorizes fines up to one million euros ($1.2 million) for starting fires in forests or open spaces, and allows prison terms of up to 20 years if the forest fire caused loss of life or substantial economic damage, Narbona said.

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