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Spaniards 'too tolerant' of blazes

By CNN Madrid Bureau Chief Al Goodman

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A Civil Guardsman battles a wildfirein Pazos de Rabade, in Ourense province, northwestern Spain.

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MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- Spaniards have been "too tolerant" of the 19,000 wildfires recorded nationwide this year, according to the country's environment minister.

Cristina Narbona was speaking Thursday as five forest fires continued to burn in northwest Spain, although rain was helping to battle some blazes.

Only one of those still burning in the Galicia region was classified as a "level 1" fire that seriously threatened people or structures. It was located near Leza, in Ourense province, where the sun was shining Thursday, but elsewhere there was rain, a local government spokeswoman told CNN.

A volunteer firefighter was injured when a tree fell on him while battling a blaze in Coruna province of the Galicia region late Wednesday. He was taken to a hospital, but news reports said his injuries were not serious.

Narbona told reporters in Madrid that while Spain has suffered 19,372 fires this year, authorities have identified only 277 people possibly responsible for negligence or arson in the blazes.

The Civil Guard has arrested 99 people since last June on suspicion of starting forest fires and a top Galicia regional official said authorities were actively pursuing arsonists and would seek to impose the maximum penalties for them.

Narbona said there has been far too much "social complicity" and "tolerance" by Spaniards regarding the fires, especially in Galicia, where 41 percent of the fires have occurred.

Galicia, a lush region of rolling hills next to the Atlantic Ocean, is just north of Portugal, also hard-hit this season by forest fires. Both Spain and Portugal are suffering from the worst drought in decades.

Fires that burned in other parts of Spain earlier in the week were reportedly under control or extinguished by Thursday.

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

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

Spanish law authorizes fines up to 1 million euros ($1.2 million) for starting fires in forests or open spaces, and prison terms of up to 20 years if the forest fire causes loss of life or substantial economic damage, Narbona said.

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