CBSN

4 dead as wildfire tears through tourist hotspot

A general view of Sitio de Curral dos Romeiros during the wildfires at Funchal, Madeira island, Portugal, August 9, 2016.

REUTERS

Last Updated Aug 10, 2016 2:45 PM EDT

LISBON, Portugal - Wildfires raged unabated in Portugal on Wednesday, killing at least four people, burning down dozens of houses and sending people fleeing in panic, as well as charring huge areas of forest.

The National Civil Protection Service reported 14 major wildfires burning out of control in mainland Portugal where almost 4,500 firefighters were in action in a massive operation, supported by 28 water-dumping aircraft and 1,300 vehicles. Even that wasn't enough, however, and the government requested help from other European Union countries.

Forest fires are common in Portugal, and elsewhere in southern Europe, during August but a mixture of temperatures exceeding 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) and strong winds since Saturday have caused damage on a scale not seen for years. There were 186 wildfires on the mainland by late afternoon Wednesday, and fire chiefs said their crews were exhausted.

A wildfire that swept overnight into Funchal, the capital of Portugal's Madeira Islands, killed three elderly people and left more than 300 people requiring medical treatment for smoke inhalation and minor burns, officials said.

portugalwildfirefunchal587754444.jpg

A man carries gas cylinders as a wildfire blazes at Curral dos Romeiros, Funchal, in Portugal's Madeira islands, Aug. 9, 2016.

Getty

Meanwhile, a forest watchman was killed on the mainland during the night when a blaze engulfed the caravan he was sleeping in 95 miles north of Lisbon.

Miguel Albuquerque, head of Madeira's regional government, told reporters the three local victims died in their burned homes early Wednesday as the wildfire hit the coastal city in the dark. He said two other people were seriously hurt and one person is missing. At least 37 houses and a five-star hotel had burned down. Tourism is the mainstay of Madeira's economy.

The Madeira fire forced the evacuation of more than 1,000 residents and tourists in the islands off northwestern Africa. Residents described chaotic nighttime scenes, with people fleeing the flames by car at high speed on the wrong side of the road.

The blaze broke out on Monday and firefighters said the island's steep hills and dense woodland made it hard to reach the flames. Albuquerque said officials suspect the fire was started deliberately and police have made two arrests.

The evacuated people were taken to an army barracks, a soccer stadium and a civic center on the island.

Men spray water on the roofs of houses to protect them from an approaching fire in Portugal's Maderia islands

Men spray water on the roofs of houses to protect them from an approaching fire in Curral dos Romeiros, on the outskirts of Funchal, on the Madeira islands, Portugal, Aug. 9 2016.

AP

A Funchal animal shelter said it released 120 cats and dogs on Tuesday as flames bore down on its premises. By Wednesday afternoon it had recovered 102 of them, SPAD Funchal said on its Facebook page.

Reinforcements, including firefighters and doctors, arrived Wednesday from the mainland and Portugal's mid-Atlantic Azores Islands.

The weather forecast is for cooler temperatures and a calmer winds in Madeira, which authorities hope will help extinguish the wildfires.