Wildfires kill at least 39 in Portugal and Spain

LISBON/MADRID, Oct 16 (Reuters) - At least 36 people died in wildfires raging through parched farmlands and forests in Portugal and another three in neighboring northwestern Spain on Sunday and Monday.

Firefighters were battling 50 blazes in Portugal and a similar number in Spain. Portugal's government asked for international help and declared a state of emergency in territory north of the Tagus river - about half of its landmass.

Flames ripped across Iberian countryside left tinder-dry by an unusually hot summer and early autumn, fanned by strong winds as remnants of ex-Hurricane Ophelia brushed coastal areas.

Television footage showed abandoned villages with many houses in embers and charred vehicles left on the roads.

21 PHOTOS
Deadly wildfires ravage Portugal and Spain
See Gallery
Deadly wildfires ravage Portugal and Spain
A firefighter is seen near flames from a forest fire in Cabanoes, near Lousa, Portugal, October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes
A resident looks at a charred forest after a wildfire in As Neves, northwestern Spain, on October 16, 2017. Wildfires whipped by strong wind gusts spawned by Hurricane Ophelia burned across northwestern Spain, leaving three people dead, officials said. / AFP PHOTO / MIGUEL RIOPA (Photo credit should read MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP/Getty Images)
VISEU, PORTUGAL - OCTOBER 16: Pumpkins lay on the ground next to burnt houses in the village of Vila Nova, near Vouzela on October 16, 2017 in Viseu region, Portugal. At least 30 people have died in fires in Portugal and 4 others in Spain as Ophelia winds were hitting the North West of the Iberian Peninsule. (Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)
A man douses a burnt area in Vila Nova near Vouzela as wildfires continue to rage in Portugal on October 16, 2017. At least 27 people have died in fires which have ravaged forests in the north and centre of the country over the past 24 hours. / AFP PHOTO / Francisco LEONG (Photo credit should read FRANCISCO LEONG/AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke and flames from a forest fire are seen near Lousa, Portugal, October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes
A woman pours water over a burnt area in Vila Nova near Vouzela as wildfires continue to rage in Portugal on October 16, 2017. At least 27 people have died in fires which have ravaged forests in the north and centre of the country over the past 24 hours. / AFP PHOTO / Francisco LEONG (Photo credit should read FRANCISCO LEONG/AFP/Getty Images)
An elderly man walks through a damaged area in Vila Nova near Vouzela as wildfires continue to rage in Portugal on October 16, 2017. At least 27 people have died in fires which have ravaged forests in the north and centre of the country over the past 24 hours. / AFP PHOTO / Francisco LEONG (Photo credit should read FRANCISCO LEONG/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture shows the damage in Vila Nova near Vouzela as wildfires continue to rage in Portugal on October 16, 2017. At least 27 people have died in fires which have ravaged forests in the north and centre of the country over the past 24 hours. / AFP PHOTO / Francisco LEONG (Photo credit should read FRANCISCO LEONG/AFP/Getty Images)
Firefighters try to extinguish flames from a forest fire in Cabanoes near Lousa, Portugal, October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes
VISEU, PORTUGAL - OCTOBER 16: Women are seen after a wildfire burnt houses in the village of Vila Nova, near Vouzela on October 16, 2017 in Viseu region, Portugal. At least 30 people have died in fires in Portugal and 4 others in Spain as Ophelia winds were hitting the North West of the Iberian Peninsule. (Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)
A firefighter stands near a firewall in Tablado, near Muniellos park, Asturias, northern Spain, October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Eloy Alonso
A woman checks the damage in Vila Nova near Vouzela as wildfires continue to rage in Portugal on October 16, 2017. At least 27 people have died in fires which have ravaged forests in the north and centre of the country over the past 24 hours. / AFP PHOTO / Francisco LEONG (Photo credit should read FRANCISCO LEONG/AFP/Getty Images)
A man walks past the carcass of a dog as he inspects the damage as wildfires continue to rage in Vila Nova near Vouzela on October 16, 2017. At least 27 people have died in fires which have ravaged forests in the north and centre of the country over the past 24 hours. / AFP PHOTO / FRANCISCO LEONG (Photo credit should read FRANCISCO LEONG/AFP/Getty Images)
A firefighter stands near a firewall in Tablado, near Muniellos park, Asturias, northern Spain, October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Eloy Alonso
A man walks through burned houses following a forest fire in Pinheiro do Azere, Portugal, October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes
Burnt houses are seen in the aftermath of a forest fire in Pinheiro do Azere , Portugal, October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes
A firefighter builds a firewall in an attempto to halt the progress of a forest fire in Tablado, near Muniellos park, Asturias, northern Spain, October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Eloy Alonso
People walk through burned trees after a forest fire in Chandebrito, Galicia, northern Spain, October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Miguel Vidal
A firefighter stands near a firewall in Tablado, near Muniellos park, Asturias, northern Spain, October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Eloy Alonso
Smoke and flames from a forest fire are seen near Lousa, Portugal, October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes
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Portuguese opposition parties and the media harshly criticised the government for failing to prevent a new wave of deadly fires after the country's worst ever forest fire in June that killed 64 people.

Prime Minister Antonio Costa, however, refused to sack his interior minister and defended his government's attempts to reform the troubled forestry management system.

"It's a structural problem that we are facing... This is not a time for resignations, but for solutions. Everything has to be transformed into reforms, to provide responses that the country needs so that nothing stays the way it was after this year," he told reporters after a television address to the nation.

"We are aware that the country wants results from us and we're running against time after decades of negligence," Costa told reporters after his address.

POOR LAND MANAGEMENT

At the heart of the problem is poor land management in Portugal, where traditional small plots have become fire hazards after being abandoned by successive generations of landholders who moved to the cities.

Interior Minister Constanca Urbano de Sousa said climate change was also to blame. "We are facing new (weather) conditions ... In an era of climate change, such disasters are becoming reality all over the world," she said, citing the wildfires burning in California.

The weekend fires also injured 63 people in Portugal, civil protection service spokeswoman Patricia Gaspar said. The toll could still increase as seven people were unaccounted for.

13 PHOTOS
London sky turns yellow as Ophelia brings in Saharan dust
See Gallery
London sky turns yellow as Ophelia brings in Saharan dust
A plane flies past buildings in the Canary Wharf district as the sky turns red as dust from the Sahara carried by storm Ophelia filters sunlight over London, Britain, October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Tom Jacobs
The sky turns red over buildings in Canary Wharf as dust from the Sahara carried by storm Ophelia filters sunlight over London, Britain, October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Tom Jacobs
A woman photograhs buildings in Canary Wharf as the sky turns red as dust from the Sahara carried by storm Ophelia filters sunlight over London, Britain, October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Tom Jacobs
A man photographs the sky turning red over buildings in Canary Wharf as dust from the Sahara carried by storm Ophelia filters sunlight over London, Britain, October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Tom Jacobs
People walk through Canary Wharf while the sky overhead turns red as dust from the Sahara carried by storm Ophelia filters sunlight over London, Britain, October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Tom Jacobs
The sky turns red over buildings in Canary Wharf as dust from the Sahara carried by storm Ophelia filters sunlight over London, Britain, October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Tom Jacobs
UNSPECIFIED, UNITED KINGDOM - OCTOBER 16: The sun goes a golden yellow colour due to dust from the Sahara being blown in with Storm Ophelia on October 16, 2017 in Fulham, London, England. (Photo by Rob Ball/Getty Images)
The sky turns red over buildings in Canary Wharf as dust from the Sahara carried by storm Ophelia filters sunlight over London, Britain, October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Tom Jacobs
The sky turns dark during mid afternoon in the financial district of Canary Wharf in London, Britain, October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Yann Tessier
The sky over Westminster turns orange as storm Ophelia brings dust from the Sahara, filtering the light over London, Britain, October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Mary Turner
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - OCTOBER 16: The sun goes a golden yellow colour over Putney due to dust from the Sahara being blown in with Storm Ophelia on October 16, 2017 in Putney, London, UK. (Photo by Rob Ball/Getty Images)
The sky over Westminster turns orange as storm Ophelia brings dust from the Sahara, filtering the light over London, Britain, October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Mary Turner
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Water-spraying planes could not be deployed against most fires due to gigantic plumes of smoke that reduced visibility.

But Gaspar said rains expected late on Monday and on Tuesday in the north of Portugal were likely to bring some relief.

The Lisbon government has been criticised for a slow, inefficient response and a lack of fire-prevention policies, leaving Portugal with Europe's largest expanse of woodland burned by wildfires.

Portugal's fires have burned over 40 percent of the total in all of the European Union this year. With just 2.1 percent of the EU's landmass, Portugal suffered the biggest fires during 2008-16 as well, with an average of 36 percent of the total.

Three people died in Spain's northwestern Galicia region - two of them women found inside a burnt-out car, the third a man in his 70s killed as he tried to save his farm animals, according to local media.

Most of the fires in Galicia were started deliberately, said Alberto Nunez Feijoo, head of the regional government.

Spanish Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido said some of those responsible had already been identified. They could face up to 20 years in jail if convicted. At least two persons were arrested in Portugal for allegedly starting fires. (Reporting by Andrei Khalip; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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