A Scorching Summer Thousands Evacuated as Wildfires Rage on Canary Islands

Tens of thousands of residents and tourists have been evacuated on the Canary Islands as wildfires rage out of control. The islands' rugged terrain is hampering efforts to fight the fires which are devasting pine forests and nature reserves.

As many as 14,000 people have been evacuated from their homes and holiday accommodation as wildfires rage on the Spanish Canary Islands.

The fires, fuelled by high temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) and strong winds, have burned 25,000 hectares (62,000 acres) of pine forest and other land.

Around 8,800 people are reported to have been evacuated on Tenerife while on Gran Canaria 5,200 people have fled the flames, with foreign tourists among those evacuated. The islands are popular with package tourists from mainland Europe and the fires come at the height of the tourist season. However the fires are burning mainly in the interior of the islands rather than affecting the coastal resorts frequented by holidaymakers.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has cancelled his summer vacation to visit the islands of Tenerife and Gran Canaria on Wednesday, while Environment Minister Cristina Narbona described the situation as "very alarming" during a visit to Gran Canaria. Television stations broadcasted dramatic satellite photos showing huge expanses of white smoke coming from the islands.

No serious injuries have been reported but 900 homes have been destroyed on Tenerife, the worst-hit island. Several motorways have been closed on the island.

Smaller fires are also burning on La Gomera and La Palma. Locals say it is the first time in living memory that fires have struck all four islands simultaneously. The archipelago, which lies off the coast of West Africa, has seven islands.

The Spanish government in Madrid is sending soldiers and aircraft to help the regional administration fight the flames. The islands' rugged terrain is hampering firefighters' efforts to bring the fires under control, making aircraft the only option.

Police reported Saturday that they had arrested a forest ranger who admitted having started the fire on Gran Canaria. The act of arson was apparently an attempt by the ranger, whose employment contract was about to run out, to save his job. A judge on Monday ordered that the ranger be held in solitary confinement, and the man could face up to 10 years in jail.

Environment groups have criticized the authorities for reacting too late and not providing sufficient resources to fight the fires. Nature reserves are among the areas affected by the fires. Firefighters are giving priority to saving residential areas rather than forests.

Southern Europe has been badly hit by wildfires this summer. A recent heat wave caused wildfires in Greece, and hundreds of tourists were evacuated last week from a seaside resort on the holiday island of Kefalonia. Greece declared a drought emergency Tuesday on the Cyclades island chain, whose islands are popular with tourists. Macedonia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Serbia have also been hit by wildfires in recent days and have appealed for international help.



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