A wildfire swept overnight into Funchal, the capital of Portugal’s Madeira Islands, killing three elderly people and injuring hundreds as it burned homes and forced people to flee in panic, authorities said Wednesday.
Miguel Albuquerque, head of Madeira’s regional government, told reporters the three 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, one person is missing and more than 300 people required medical treatment for smoke inhalation and minor burns.
He said 80 of the injured were still in the hospital. At least 37 houses and a five-star hotel had burned down.
The blaze, fueled by hot weather and strong winds, forced the evacuation of around 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.
Tourism is the mainstay of Madeira’s economy. The high winds in recent days have also forced the cancellation of around two dozen flights.
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 have been taken to an army barracks, a soccer stadium and a civic center on the island.
Albuquerque said reinforcements, including firefighters and doctors, are arriving later Wednesday from the Portuguese mainland. The weather forecast is for cooler temperatures and a drop in the wind speed, which authorities hope will help extinguish the Madeira fire.
On the Portuguese mainland, fire services were still fighting scores of wildfires that have raged since Saturday.
The National Civil Protection Service reported that 12 major blazes were still out of control in the north of the country, where fire chiefs say crews are exhausted. More than 3,300 firefighters were in action, supported by 27 water-dumping aircraft.