Four people have died in an outbreak of wildfires that have been ravaging Galicia, in northwestern Spain, since Friday. The situation remained critical on Monday, with 105 active fires and 16 localities at serious risk of being engulfed by the flames.
Galicia has been dealing with over 100 fires since Friday. Of these, 28 began on Saturday night, when strong winds began to blow in the region as Hurricane Ophelia approached from the Atlantic Ocean.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, himself a native of Galicia, announced on Monday morning that he would be traveling to the region.
Me desplazo a Galicia. Solidaridad de toda España y coordinación leal para vencer al fuego y atender a la población. MR— Mariano Rajoy Brey (@marianorajoy) 16 de octubre de 2017
"I am going to Galicia. Solidarity from all of Spain and loyal coordination to defeat the fire and help the population."
“Everything is being done to save the most important thing of all, human lives,” said Ángeles Vázquez, the regional chief of rural affairs.
On Sunday, firefighters found two corpses inside a blackened vehicle on the road linking two small localities in Nigrán, in Pontevedra province.
The third victim is a 78-year-old man from Abelenda, in the province of Ourense. His body was located behind his house, where he had been trying to put out the flames inside a corral in order to save his animals. Two more people from this same parish were found in good health after refusing to leave their homes despite being surrounded by a ring of fire.
A fourth victim was confirmed on Monday: a man in his 70s who died while fighting fires in Vigo on Sunday evening.
The flames are now rushing towards Vigo, the most populated city in Galicia with over 290,000 residents. The city is covered by a cloud of smoke and ash, and local officials have told residents of areas exposed to the fire to abandon their homes and go to the city center, where three hotels have been designated as temporary shelters.
There were roadblocks on the A-52 motorway to Vigo on Sunday, causing a huge traffic jam and scenes of panic among drivers.
The most chaotic situation is in southern Pontevedra province, a densely populated area where homes are at risk in five municipalities: Pazos de Borbén, As Neves, Salvaterra do Miño, Baiona and Gondomar.
In some homes in Vincios, rescuers had to shatter windows in order to get elderly people out of their homes, Europa Press reports.
The situation in Galicia, a heavily wooded region of Spain, is critical. The combination of strong, changing winds, high temperatures and understaffed firefighting units – 436 fighters were let go at the end of the summer season, when the risk of fire is greater – has made the response to the flames all that more challenging.
Galician environmental authorities said that the fires were “clearly intentional.” One of the fires, in Pazos de Borbén, began in the nearby municipality of Ponteareas in the early hours of Sunday “with four consecutive seats by the side of the same road,” said a representative of the Galicia government.
“Arsonists are walking a fine line bordering on homicide,” said the Galician premier, Alberto Núñez Feijóo.
By noon on Sunday, 1,500 hectares of land had already burnt down, with the flames advancing along a four-kilometer front. By the afternoon, the burnt land was estimated at more than 4,000 hectares, although the final figure is expected to be higher.
Authorities have deployed 350 fire brigades and 160 members of the Emergency Military Unit (UME) throughout the region, as well as 220 water pumps and some 20 firefighting aircraft.
This wave of autumn fires is affecting nature preserves like O Xurés Natural Park, on the border with Portugal, which is experiencing fires of its own.
Weather forecasts talked about rain on Monday, when Ophelia will hit Galicia in the form of a storm that will cause temperatures to drop by as much as 10ºC in many parts of the region.
English version by Susana Urra.