5,000 flee resort area as wildfire rages


A FOREST fire has ripped through the countryside in southern Spain, devouring buildings on the edge of the resort town of Marbella and causing 5,000 people to be evacuated from their homes.

The fire, which started near the Andalusian coast on Thursday evening, was still raging last night between Marbella and the city of Málaga. About 1,000 hectares of land were scorched in the first few hours of the fire, according to an official estimate, but with high winds and temperatures over 30 degrees in the area, more extensive damage was expected.

About 1,000 residents of Marbella were evacuated in the early hours of yesterday morning, after the wind changed direction sending the fire towards the town. Inland from Marbella, the entire village of Ojén, with a population of 3,300, was evacuated along with several hundred inhabitants of nearby rural areas.

Many evacuees spent the night in a sports centre and other makeshift campsites have been set up.

Police found the burnt body of an elderly British man in a house near Ojén. His wife was believed to be missing. Several people were hospitalised with burns and respiratory problems yesterday.

“The fire is terrifying. The flames are 10m or 15m high,” Ángel Nozal, mayor of the neighbouring town of Mijas, told El País newspaper.

About 850 emergency personnel were deployed to control the blaze, with 30 helicopters and planes dousing it with water.

Summer wildfires are a regular occurrence in Spain, but the speed with which this one spread surprised the authorities. The blaze was given a level-two emergency rating, meaning the local government required state assistance in controlling it.

The central government’s representative in the province of Málaga, José Luis Ruiz Espejo, suggested the fire might have been started intentionally.

“It’s a bit strange because the alarm was raised so quickly, and the fire spread so fast and over so many kilometres in such a short period that it makes us very suspicious regarding how the fire began,” he said.

A separate fire near the Portuguese border, in the Extremadura region saw about 100 people evacuated from their homes. They were later allowed to return.

According to Greenpeace, over 500sq miles (1,295sq km) of land have been burnt by wildfires this year, not including the Marbella blaze – nearly three times as many as during the same period in 2011.

A particularly dry summer in Spain is believed to have played a part, but critics have also blamed cuts made to firefighting services as part of the conservative government’s austerity drive.

The Valencia region, which saw miles of countryside destroyed by one of Spain’s worst wildfires of recent years in June, had its firefighting budget cut by €15 million in 2012, prompting criticism from unions and environmental groups.