Six Firefighters Killed in Intense Forest Fire in Northern Portugal

Updated: 07-09-2006 08:47:42 PM

The Associated Press

Six firefighters - five Chileans and one Portuguese - died on Sunday when they were caught by flames as they fought a forest fire in northern Portugal, officials said.

Police later arrested a man on suspicion of starting the fire. It was unclear whether the case was being considered as arson.

The firefighters were enveloped by flames when the wind suddenly changed, firefighting commander Gil Martins said, adding only an inquiry would determine the full causes of the accident.

"Forest fires are treacherous and unpredictable," Martins said at a news conference. "This is a mountainous area with local winds and something went wrong. Only an inquiry will say what," he added.

By late evening the fire, which broke out in the afternoon, was still being fought by 171 firefighters, 42 fire trucks and two airborne water tankers.

The ministry of Internal Administration has already opened an inquiry into the deaths, officials said.

These are the first fire deaths in Portugal in 2006.

Last year, wildfires scorched 325,000 hectares (800,000 acres) of forest and killed 21 people during Portugal's worst drought on record. Police arrested more than 100 people on suspicion of arson.

In 2003 - the worst for wildfires in two decades - fire consumed 425,000 hectares (1 million acres) and killed 18 people.