Spain and Portugal battle deadly Ophelia-fanned fires while Britain and Ireland brace for the storm
Madrid/Dublin — While Spain and Portugal battled deadly wildfires fanned by Hurricane Ophelia, Britain and Ireland braced for the storm — a rare occurrence in the north Atlantic.
Three people have died in Portugal, which has been hit by a record number of forest fires, and three more have died in Spain, where blazes sparked by arsonists have been fanned by strong winds from Ophelia.
In total, about 440 fires were burning across Portugal on Sunday, which was “the worst day since the beginning of the year”, according to a spokeswoman for the national civil protection agency, Patricia Gaspar.
In addition to the three dead, about 25 people had been injured, she said, with thousands of firefighters deployed and three motorways, including one linking Lisbon and Porto, closed.
In June this year Portugal suffered its worst fire on record, near Pedrogao Grande in the centre of the country, which killed 64 people and injured 250.
The recent fires had been caused by “higher than average temperatures for the season and the cumulative effect of drought, which has been felt since the start of the year”, Gaspar said.
In Spain, authorities were blaming arson for 17 fires that had caused three deaths.
“They are absolutely intentional fires, premeditated, caused by people who know what they are doing,” the head of the regional government, Alberto Nunez Feijoo, said.
The flames were being fanned by wind gusts of up to 90km/h as Ophelia moved north off the coast of Spain towards Ireland, he told private broadcaster La Sexta.
“The situation is critical,” he said.
Feijoo said “thousands” of firefighters, soldiers and locals were battling the blazes.
Ireland ordered all schools to close on Monday as it braced for the “unprecedented storm”, the largest hurricane ever recorded so far east in the Atlantic Ocean.
“In response to the imminent Storm Ophelia, the Department of Education and Skills is now publicly informing all schools, colleges and other education institutions that they are to remain closed tomorrow, Monday 16 October,” the department said in a statement.
The decision followed discussions with the government’s emergency planning task force and advice “on this unprecedented storm” from Ireland’s Met Eireann national weather service, the statement added.
Met Eireann issued a nationwide “status red” alert and warned of “potential risk to lives” when the storm hit at daytime on Monday.
Although Ophelia would weaken as the storm travelled over cooler seas towards the west coast of Ireland, Met Eireann forecast “violent and destructive gusts”.
Heavy rain and storm surges are expected to lead to flooding.
An amber wind warning has been issued for Northern Ireland between 2pm GMT and 9pm GMT, when gusts could reach up to 130km/h.
“By the time Ophelia reaches our latitudes, she will be weakening and will be an ex-hurricane,” said Steve Ramsdale, chief forecaster at Britain’s Met Office national weather service.
“However, Ex-Ophelia will be bringing some significant impacts to Northern Ireland and western and northern Britain on Monday and Tuesday.”
Scotland, Wales and parts of England were under yellow warnings issued by the Met Office, which forecast “very strong winds” and heavy rain in some areas.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said on Sunday that defence forces were being deployed to areas due to be hit by the storm.
Ophelia is the 15th named storm of the 2017 Atlantic season, which is expected to last until the end of November.
Three major hurricanes — Harvey, Irma and Maria — caused catastrophic damage in the Caribbean and the US Gulf Coast.
Meteorologists say Ophelia is the most powerful hurricane recorded so far east in the Atlantic and the first since 1939 to travel so far north.
It was classed Category 3 on Saturday as it passed near Portugal’s Azores islands, which means it packed winds of at least 178km/h.
Flights, ferries and buses all face disruption. Cork Airport in southwest Ireland said “cancellations are likely” and urged passengers to check with their airlines in advance of travel.