Evacuees return home after France fires tamed

Huge fires that forced mass evacuations in southern France were under control Thursday, allowing holidaymakers and residents in the worst-hit area to return to their accommodation and homes. Blazes that raged in hills around the village of Bormes-les-Mimosas, near beaches popular with tourists on the Cote d'Azur, forced 10,000 people to be evacuated from the region overnight Tuesday. Hundreds of firefighters and a fleet of planes dropping water on the burning trees and bushland have contained the blazes, meaning people who spent two nights in emergency centres or sleeping on beaches could return home. "The fire is contained and the last smouldering areas are almost out," said Colonel Frederic Marchi Leccia, deputy fire chief in the Var region. "We were lucky that the wind dropped in the middle of the night, allowing us to work more effectively before it picked up again. "The situation is developing in a positive way in Bormes-les-Mimosas, meaning we were able to take the decision with the local town hall to allow the evacuees to return to their homes in a staggered manner," he added. In the neighbouring Bouches-du-Rhone region, three major fires were also under control or being dampened down. Authorities remained on high alert, fearing that new blazes could start in the hot, bone-dry conditions. "In such dry conditions, we really fear that fires could start again," one firefighter said. As firefighters in France were in action for a fourth day, the situation was improving in central Portugal where fires had raged across large areas of tinder-dry forest on Wednesday. Parts of southern Europe are experiencing a scorching summer, leaving forests and bushland highly vulnerable to fire. Over 6,000 troops, soldiers and civil security officials are involved in efforts to put out the flames in France, backed up by around 20 planes that have made more than 500 drops of water on the burning trees and bushes. Italy responded to France's call for help, sending a water-bombing plane. The population of France's Cote d'Azur swells massively in July and August as millions of holidaymakers flood in. The area is experiencing a particularly hot and dry summer that has made it especially prone to fires. Authorities are investigating whether some of the blazes were started deliberately. Experts say said a drop-off in farming in southeast France since the 1970s has allowed forests and wild areas of bush to proliferate, making the region more prone to fires. An increase in the numbers of homes, roads and power lines has also increased the risk of fires. - 'Weather against us' - Portugal was also battling forest fires that cut off roads in the centre of the country and forced thousands to flee just a month after deadly blazes left more than 60 people dead. More than 3,000 firefighters -- more than a quarter of the country's total -- helped tame the fires, focusing their efforts on the biggest blaze in Serta, in the Castelo Branco region. A village of 2,000 people was evacuated on Wednesday after fast-moving flames licked at its outskirts, but firefighters said the situation was under control 24 hours later. "The weather is still against us and we remain on alert even in the areas where the fires have been brought under control," said Patricia Gaspar, spokeswoman for the civil protection authorities.