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Aircraft tackle Portugal blazes

By Al Goodman
CNN

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Portugal
Fire
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Lisbon (Portugal)

(CNN) -- Cooler temperatures and a fleet of international firefighting aircraft are helping authorities in Portugal to contain raging wildfires, with just five large fires still burning on Wednesday, down from several dozen over the weekend, a Portuguese official told CNN.

"If we compare the scenario today to the scenario just last weekend, it's totally different," said Patricia Gaspar of Portugal's National Fire Coordination Center. "Starting Thursday, we'll have a significant decrease of temperature, so that should help.

The historic university city of Coimbra, Portugal's third-largest city with a population of 150,000, is considered out of danger after flames threatened it in recent days. A fire continues to burn near Coimbra at the village of Sao Furtuoso, Gaspar said.

She could not immediately confirm Portuguese news reports that said 60 people were evacuated from the village.

Four other fires were also the focus of attention -- three in the Viseo district in central Portugal and another in the north, she said.

Firefighting aircraft from France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Holland continued to assist Portugal's fleet in the battle. About 600 firefighters were fighting the fires on Thursday, down from 3,000 who had been actively fighting fires in recent days, Gaspar said.

The fires this season have killed 15 people, most of them firefighters, and burned at least 150,000 hectares (370,000 acres). That is more than during all of 2004, but still below the 2003 toll of 420,000 hectares (just over 1 million acres) burned, the worst year on record.

One Portuguese official said the toll may reach 180,000 hectares burned this year. Gaspar could not confirm that but acknowledged it was possible.

Portuguese police have arrested 115 people on suspicion of starting fires.

The new Socialist government has been criticized for being ill prepared to fight the fires this year, given the experience of fighting blazes in the past two years under the former conservative government.

The government vowed earlier this week to tighten controls of forest management to prevent future fires, but said its priority was to extinguish the current blazes.

Critics say fallen branches and undergrowth should be cleaned more frequently from the forest floor, as a buildup of the dry material -- Portugal is suffering from one of its worst-ever droughts -- has fueled the fires and helped them spread rapidly.

This years fires have destroyed about 100 homes and more than 500 farm buildings, Gaspar said.

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