ENVIRONMENT

Battle resumes to extinguish fire near Spain national park

Spanish authorities were hopeful Monday that dropping temperature and favorable winds would help firefighters battling to extinguish a forest fire on the fringes of the Donana National Park, a celebrated conservation wetland and home to the endangered Iberian lynx.

"Today is a key day," Andalusia regional president Susan Diaz told reporters. "Before dawn, (the fire) advanced. There were moments of much difficulty and it was out of control. Today all the news is positive."

Andalusia's forest-fire prevention department said the firefighters had managed to encircle and confine two of the three blazes raging close to the area, but that a third one closer to the park was still out of control, mainly due to blustery winds.

Spokesman Ignacio Fernandez said the fire "has not affected the park at all" but had damaged protected areas nearby.

Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido said there were no casualties.

There were no immediate details on how much land had been scorched so far.

The government said 600 firefighters had been deployed along with six water-dropping planes and two helicopters. It said the fire was "developing favorably."

The blaze started Saturday about 30 kilometers (20 miles) west of the southern coastal park. Diaz said they were not ruling out the possibility that the fire was started deliberately.

The blaze comes a week after wildfires killed 64 people in neighboring Portugal, which like Spain is suffering a severe lack of rain and soaring temperatures.

Donana National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1994. It protects over 107,000 hectares (264,403 acres) considered of extreme ecological value for their mix of ecosystems including wetlands, dunes and woods. It is a key stop for migratory birds and home to a variety of animals, including Iberian lynxes, one of the world's most endangered feline species, and the Spanish Imperial eagle.

Park authorities said one of the lynxes, a female called Homer, died as a consequence of the stress after workers tried to get her and other adults and cubs out of a breeding center close to Donana.

Enormous efforts have been made to recover the Iberian lynx population in recent years. From less than 100 cats in 2004, the numbers have currently gone up to 483 in the wild, most of them in central and southern Spain, as well as in Portugal.

The fire damage is "not as bad as initially thought," said World Wildlife Fund expert Ramon Perez de Ayala, although it affected the nature reserve frequented by a group of cats "with high genetic value."

"It's a setback especially for conservation in the wild," the expert said, noting how conservation efforts will need to focus on introducing rabbits in areas devastated by the blaze, the fundamental source of meat for both the Iberian lynx and the Imperial eagle.

In a statement, WWF said that the organization had been warning "for years" that the buffer reserve around Donana presented high risks of forest fires given illegal agriculture and other dangerous activities.

"We had feared something like this could happen, but luckily it has taken place now, and not 10 years ago when the lynx was on the brink of extinction," Perez de Ayala said.

Maximum temperatures in the Donana area were forecast to drop to 33 C (91 F) from close to 40 C in recent days. Authorities also hoped for favorable changes in winds.

The government said 2,100 had to be evacuated over the weekend, many from campsites and houses near the towns Moguer and Mazagon, but that more than half had been able to return by Monday.