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Fires under control in Portugal

By Al Goodman
CNN

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Portugal
Fire
Drought
Lisbon (Portugal)

MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- No active fires were burning in Portugal as of Thursday morning -- a drastic change from last weekend, when several dozen blazes were raging, according to a Portuguese official.

It was too soon to begin assessing damage from the fires, said Patricia Gaspar of Portugal's National Fire Coordination Center, but preliminary estimates showed about 200,000 hectares (about 494,000 acres) have been burned, possibly a bit more.

About 800 firefighters and 200 firefighting vehicles remained in the region for follow up and surveillance operations, particularly because forecasts showed the wind picking up in Portugal, Gaspar said.

Eight hundred soldiers also remained in the field, she told CNN.

Mayors of individual regions have been asked to begin assessing damages locally, she said.

This season's fires in Portugal have killed 15 people, most of them firefighters.

The land area burned exceeds that in all of 2004, but remains below the 2003 toll of 420,000 hectares (slightly more than 1 million acres) burned, the worst year on record.

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.

Gaspar said a number of factors, including one of Portugal's worst-ever droughts, are to blame for the fires, but said the government is re-assessing its forest policy in the wake of the fires.

Critics say fallen branches and undergrowth should be cleaned more frequently from the forest floor, as a buildup of the material fueled the fires and helped them spread rapidly.

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

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