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Villagers evacuated as wildfire ravages woodlands in western Spain

Villagers evacuated as wildfire ravages woodlands in western Spain

MADRID (Reuters) -Emergency crews evacuated around 600 villagers in western Spain overnight as a wildfire blamed on arsonists ravaged up to 8,000 hectares (19,800 acres) near the border with Portugal, officials said.

Strong winds were making it harder to control the blaze in the densely forested areas of Las Hurdes and Sierra de Gata in the Extremadura region, emergency services said on Friday.

People from three villages - Cadalso, Descargamaría and Robledillo de Gata - were evacuated and three roads in the area were closed, the Civil Guard said.

Up to 260 firefighters and 165 soldiers were fighting the blaze, authorities said.

Guillermo Fernandez Vara, president of the Extremadura region, said efforts to control it were being hampered by winds gusting at up to 60 kilometres per hour (35 mph) and by the forested landscape.

"The pine trees are petrol canisters and the pine cones are flamethrowers," Fernandez Vara said, adding that he believed the fire was started deliberately.

"Whoever did it knew what he was doing, how to do it and when to do it," he said.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez cancelled a visit to the region planned for Friday ahead of local elections next week, his press office said.

An unusually dry winter across parts of southern Europe coming after three years of below-average rainfall in Spain has raised the risk of wildfires.

The European Union's Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) warned of extreme danger of fires in other parts of Spain, especially around the city of Zaragoza in the northeastern region of Aragon.

Changing weather conditions associated with global warming will further increase the danger of fire in Europe, according to research by the European Commission.

A total of 493 fires destroyed a record 307,000 hectares in Spain last year, according to the European Forest Fire Information System.

(Reporting by Inti Landauro, Emma Pinedo, David Latona; additional reporting by Catarina Demony; writing by Charlie Devereux; editing by Robert Birsel, Andrew Heavens and John Stonestreet)