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Portugal tries to contain fatal fires, debunks plane crash

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    A firefighting airplane drops its load of water trying to prevent a forest fire from reaching the village of Ouzenda, outside Pedrogao Grande, central Portugal, today.

LISBON, Portugal >> Emergency services in Portugal said today they were making good progress in controlling a major wildfire that killed 64 people in the central area of the country, while officials said reports that a water-dropping plane had crashed in the area of the blaze turned out to be false.

Maria Jose Andre of Portugal’s Air Accident Office said her department was told by the Civil Protection Agency that a Canadair water-dropping plane had crashed today while fighting the wildfire. Her office immediately sent a crash investigation team to the area.

But in a bizarre sequence of events, officials with the Portuguese government and the Civil Protection Agency said they could not confirm a crash had taken place. They said airborne search-and-rescue teams dispatched to look for wreckage didn’t find anything and that no firefighting planes were missing.

Civil Protection Agency spokesman Fausto Coutinho suggested that word of a plane crash was based on misleading information relayed from the fire area. He could not explain why Portugal’s Air Accident Office said it received a call from the agency notifying it of a plane crash, but said the confusing situation on the ground could have misled people.

“It could have been a strange coincidence, with a plane passing over and an explosion occurring on the ground at the same time,” Coutinho told the AP.

Vitor Vaz Pinto, another Civil Protection Agency spokesman, said an abandoned caravan containing gas bottles had exploded in the same area and sent up a fireball, suggesting that may have led people to think there was a crash.

The Civil Protection Agency said about 2,400 firefighters and 24 water-dropping aircraft were fighting the deadly wildfire around the area of Pedrogao Grande, which was raging for a third consecutive day about 150 kilometers (90 miles) north of Lisbon.

Secretary of State for the Interior Jorge Gomes said the wildfires were gradually ebbing and being contained.

“There are already some areas where the fires are contained and being extinguished,” he told reporters.

Some firefighting resources were being diverted to Gois, about 20 kilometers from Pedrogao Grande, where almost 800 firefighters and four planes were battling flames. Vaz Pinto told reporters the Gois wildfire was “very fast and very explosive” and had forced the evacuation of 11 hill villages.

Temperatures forecast to reach 43 degrees Celsius (109 Fahrenheit), gusting winds and bone-dry woodland were fueling the blazes, Vaz Pinto said.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Antonio Costa ordered an investigation into what happened on Saturday night when the deaths occurred, 47 of them on a road as people fled the flames.

Costa’s order asked three questions: whether extreme weather could explain the scale of the disaster, why emergency services communications at times didn’t work, and why the road where the deaths occurred was not closed.

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