Wind fans flames of Canary Island fire

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The Independent Online

Strong winds fanned forest fires on the Canary Island of La Palma, and firefighters were forced to retreat as flames raged out of control near two towns.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero visited areas affected by fire and viewed firefighting efforts on the island late yesterday.

"I'm conscious of the damage done - I've witnessed it myself," Mr Zapatero said, adding that he hoped better news would be coming soon.

A large plume of smoke could be seen rising from the 273 square mile (706 sq km)) island's southern tip where fires were active on two fronts. Fire-tracing satellites showed the smoke was visible from space and covered a wide area, blotting out the neighbouring island of La Gomera.

La Palma is one of the least developed and most verdant of the Canary Islands, off West Africa, and was praised by pop star Madonna in her song La Isla Bonita.

The island is home to many archaeologically valuable sites, including remnants of prehistoric human dwellings places as well as very early art.

Firefighters on the eastern side of the island had to pull back due to intense fires near the towns of Fuencaliente and Tigalete, regional government security official Jose Miguel Ruano said.

About 500 firefighters have been deployed along with seven water-dropping aircraft.

Some 4,000 residents were evacuated from the area on Saturday.

Flames have so far destroyed about 50 homes in Fuencaliente, according to the mayor, Gregorio Alonso. Several small wineries which once made artisan-quality wines from the region's renowned Malvasia grapevines have also been lost to the flames.

Canary wine has been famous since William Shakespeare's time and the playwright referred to it several times in The Merry Wives Of Windsor.

Tigalete is home to around 2,000 German families, many of them retired, said Jose Perez, German consul on the island. Many were among those evacuated.

Officials were worried that the fire could spread north toward Caldera de Taburiente national park, home to several endangered native species such as the Canary Islands Juniper.

Environment chief Vladimiro Rodriguez said several fires started almost simultaneously, usually a sign they could be man-made. Around 5,000 acres (2,000 hectares) had been destroyed by fire by midday yesterday.

A fire on the nearby island of La Gomera - the second in two days - was brought under control.