Page last updated at 15:34 GMT, Thursday, 2 August 2007 16:34 UK

European fires near record levels

Firefighter on the Spanish Canary island of Tenerife (1 August)
Blistering heat and hot dry winds have fanned the fires

Forests fires that have ravaged southern Europe during the past month were some of the worst on record, the European Commission has said.

More than 3,000 sq km (1,200 sq miles) of forest had already burned this year, almost as much as in the whole of 2006, the commission said.

It warned of more fires in the days ahead, with Spain and Portugal, where temperatures are soaring, most at risk.

Most recently, fires in the Canary Islands have forced thousands to flee.

Firefighters there are continuing to battle two major fires which have razed some 350 sq km (135 sq miles) of land in the last few days.

Experts described the fires on Tenerife and Gran Canaria as an environmental catastrophe. Some 20% of forests have been destroyed, and recovery is expected to take years.

Rapid reaction force

The normal fire season in Europe has only just started but blistering heat and hot dry winds have already fanned wildfires across parts of southern Europe.

Fire damage on the Spanish Canary island of Gran Canaria (1 August)
Experts say fires in Gran Canaria are an environmental catastrophe

July 2007 was one of the worst-ever months on record, according to figures from the European Forest Fire Information System, which date back some 20 years.

Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece and Italy have all been affected, as well as countries like the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Albania and Turkey.

The EU executive is currently working on proposals for a permanent rapid reaction force to fight fires in Europe, with units ready to intervene at short notice.

The BBC's Dominic Hughes in Brussels says as climate change increases the frequency of extreme weather patterns, closer European co-operation on fire-fighting is becoming more pressing.

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