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Portugal fires toll rises to 14

From Madrid Bureau Chief Al Goodman

A woman grives after her home was burned down in Chamusca, Portugal.
A woman grives after her home was burned down in Chamusca, Portugal.

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MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- The death toll rose to 14 from Portugal's fierce forest fires Wednesday with rising temperatures helping to spark new blazes while firefighters battled five large uncontrolled fires.

"The situation has gotten a little worse," a worker at the National Fire Coordination Center in Lisbon told CNN.

The latest victims were a married couple, in their 40s, who died in a forest fire in the locale of Freixo de Espada a Cinta, in the Braganca district in northern Portugal, said the worker, Patricia Gaspar, of the fire coordination center.

But more help has arrived, as three helicopters from Germany landed in Portugal to join the fight Wednesday, adding to the international firefighting aircraft already on loan from Italy and Morocco, Gaspar said.

After making good progress against the fires Tuesday, she said the high temperatures on Wednesday were causing new problems and a slightly worse scenario, but that the situation was nonetheless "better than last week, when there were 56 fires burning at the same time."

By Wednesday, the five uncontrolled fires were the main problems. Most were in rough forested terrain, making access difficult.

A total of 1,565 firefighers and 700 soldiers were battling the blazes. Another 600 national republican guard officers were patrolling the fire areas to maintain order and help with evacuations where necessary.

The uncontrolled fires were listed in Casal Novo of the Castelo Branco district; in the locales of Seia, Sabugal and Vale Nicolau in the Guarda district, and in Vale Sera of the Santarem district.

Santarem, about an hour's drive from Lisbon, was the closest fire to the capital, which itself has not been directly affected by the fires that broke out last week.

The latest fires have burned 54,000 hectares (133,000 acres), she said, which is almost as much land burned just since last week as during the entire preceding seven months, since last January, when 80,400 hectares (198,000 acres) had burned, before the latest round of fires.

Gaspar confirmed reports that police have arrested several people on suspicion of arson. Authorities have previously said they believed that many of the fires were intentionally set.

State-run Lusa news agency reported that one 33 year-old arson suspect had told police he set a fire due to a family dispute.

Gaspar said the arrival of three helicopters from Germany resulted from a Portuguese request to the European Union for aid to member countries. On Tuesday, Portugal, in a separate request, asked NATO, for help as well.

But a NATO spokesman in Brussels told CNN on Wednesday that Spain, France and Italy -- which might normally provide more assistance to fellow-NATO member Portugal -- have not been able to help as much due to fires in their own territories.

Italy has provided two firefighting aircraft to Portugal, while Spain provided some aircraft last week but later recalled them to fight fires at home.

NATO was going to ask other member nations about possibly providing help to Portugal, the spokesman said.

In Spain, the fire situation Wednesday was more under control, and "the numerous fires of the past weekend are practically controlled, although there are few others of less intensity," a Spanish Environment Ministry statement said.

In just the first five days of August, the fires in Spain burned 27,000 hectares (66,700 acres). That was almost as much as in the preceding seven months, since last January, when 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) had burned, before the latest round of fires, the ministry statement said.

The latest fires did the most damage in western Spain, near the Portuguese border, the ministry said, adding that Spain had made considerable use of its fleet of 56 firefighting aircraft to contain the blazes.

No deaths were reported in Spain due to the fires. But the heat wave gripping the nation has killed 12 people. The latest among them were four people in their 80s who succumbed to the heat in southern Spain.

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