MADRID, Spain – Crews fighting more than 20 forest fires in northern Spain stopped blazes from advancing into two historic towns that are major tourist attractions, officials said Sunday.
A fire near the outskirts of Santiago de Compostella was downgraded from maximum threat level to "active but controlled." The northwestern city has drawn visitors since the Middle Ages as the reputed burial place of the apostle St. James.
Forest fires in Spain and other Mediterranean countries char hundreds of thousands of acres of land every year. Spain's national and regional governments agreed to step up vigilance after 17 people died in fires last summer.
Of the 26 active fires in the northwestern province of Galicia, five burned out of control Sunday and required nearby residents to evacuate. At one point, the main highway between the northwestern cities of Pontevedra and Vigo had to be closed due to fire.
Many of the outbreaks in the northwest appeared to have been ignited deliberately, said Galicia fire department spokeswoman Iria Mendez.
Emilio Perez Tourino, leader of the regional government of Galicia, said anyone involved in arson would be pursued relentlessly by the law.
The Environment Ministry has been trying to reduce the number of forest fires that affect Spain each year.
The number of fires that have burned more than 2.5 acres has dropped from more than 6,200 in 2005 to under 3,000 in 2006 for the January-July period, according to ministry figures. Fires charred 88,635 acres, down from 233,370 acres in 2005, the ministry added.
Authorities attribute the drop to preventive measures, including banning barbecues in the countryside in dry regions, and more effective campaigns to clear roadside garbage and forests of fallen leaves and branches.