3 Aug 2009

Forest fire out of control on Canary island

9:45 pm on 3 August 2009

A huge forest fire is out of control on the island of La Palma in the Canaries, forcing the evacuation of up to 4,000 people, including tourists.

Military aircraft are fighting the flames but firefighters have been pulled back from the worst-hit areas because of the intensity of the flames.

But since then they have been aided by a slight drop in temperature and a change in wind direction, the BBC reports.

Some residents were saved just minutes before fire engulfed their homes. Several dozen homes in the town of Fuencaliente were gutted.

There are fears the flames could spread to an observatory housing the world's largest telescope.

The Roque de Los Muchachos Observatory has been operating for more than 20 years, and a new telescope was inaugurated in July.

Fresh teams of firefighters have been brought in from other parts of the Canary Islands, and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has also arrived in La Palma to inspect efforts to tackle the fire.

He said an "appropriate decree regarding aid" would be approved at the next cabinet meeting on 13 August.

The fire is thought to have been caused by a stray firework let off during local fiestas.

Dozens of tourists have been unable to catch flights home because of road closures.

La Palma is a small, relatively undeveloped island, with a population of about 85,000.

Smaller fires are burning on other Canary Islands, including Tenerife and Gran Canaria, but they are expected to be brought under control soon.