Spain's Asturias ravaged by fires as authorities blame 'terrorist' arsonists

Wildfire burns Naranco mountain, near Oviedo, Spain, March 31, 2023 in this picture obtained from social media. Sofi Fdez-Pena via REUTERS

SETIENES, Spain (Reuters) - The lush region of Asturias in northern Spain was ravaged by more than 90 wildfires on Friday, most of them believed to have been started by arsonists whom the region's leader called "fire terrorists".

Over 600 firefighters were deployed to tackle the blazes and several towns have been evacuated as police closed off roads and highways.

The Spanish government has said it is worried more wildfires will flare this year after an unusually dry winter across parts of southern Europe and rising average temperatures due to climate change.

"THEY ARE BURNING OUR ASTURIAS. We are dealing with real terrorists who are endangering lives, towns and cities," Adrian Barbon, the head of the regional government, said on Twitter.

Dozens of fires have already been put off by emergency services in Asturias and the neighboring region of Cantabria over the past two days. Most of them were sparked on purpose and fanned by strong winds, authorities said.

Police said they opened multiple investigations but no arsonist has yet been identified. Penalties for arson can reach up to 20 years in prison, depending on the damage caused.

Andres Perez, a 68-year-old resident of the town of Setienes, told Reuters he was convinced the fires were the result of arson but did not know who was behind them or their motives.

"But what we do know is that it is total ruin, both for the ecology, materially and for everything."

In the past, intentional fires have often been linked to pastoralists seeking to gain more grazing land for their cattle. Asturias revoked a law restricting cattle from grazing in fire-damaged forest areas in 2017.

"These fires are unparallelled and it's devastating to watch with impotence as the fires sweep over our land," Oscar Perez, the mayor of Luarca - a municipality that comprises 164 towns and hamlets - told state broadcaster TVE.

The densely-forested mountainous region is one of Spain's rainiest areas, though fires are common in March, according to the regional government.

A combination of scarce rainfall, high temperatures and winds has placed most of northern Spain at a high wildfire risk.

Spain registered its hottest March 29 on record on Wednesday, with temperatures exceeding normal levels by seven to 14 Celsius (44.6-57.2 Fahrenheit), according to weather agency AEMET.

(Reporting by Vincent West, Inti Landauro and Emma Pinedo; Writing by David Latona; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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