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Canary Islanders survey devastation by forest fires

But tourist areas said unaffected

Smoke still hung in the air yesterday in Los Realejos on Tenerife. Fire crews planned to continue wetting areas on that island and Gran Canaria, where the largest fires occurred. Smoke still hung in the air yesterday in Los Realejos on Tenerife. Fire crews planned to continue wetting areas on that island and Gran Canaria, where the largest fires occurred. (PEDRO ARMESTRE/AFP/Getty Images)

MADRID -- Residents and officials of the Canary Islands surveyed the charred aftermath yesterday of devastating forest fires that raged across several islands in recent days, burning homes and destroying thousands of acres of pine forest that are home to some of the Spanish islands' unique wildlife.

Most of the 13,000 people evacuated from their homes on Tenerife and Gran Canaria, the sites of the biggest fires, had returned by late yesterday, some of them to find their houses or businesses reduced to blackened shells.

"In the recorded history of our islands, we have never seen a natural catastrophe of these proportions. It has been a real nightmare," José Miguel Pérez, head of the regional government of Gran Canaria, said by telephone.

Firefighting teams were dousing the smoldering ground on the two islands in the hope of putting out the final flames of the archipelago's most devastating blaze in 50 years. They said they would continue to soak the ground for several days.

Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero visited the islands on Wednesday and plans to hold an emergency Cabinet meeting today to approve financial aid for hundreds of Canary Islanders whose homes and businesses were damaged or who are now out of work.

Fed by high winds and unseasonable temperatures, the blaze affected an estimated 50,000 acres on Gran Canaria and nearly as large an area on Tenerife.

Aurelio Abreu, mayor of Buenavista del Norte, on Tenerife, said the flames had turned a place of great natural beauty and architectural heritage into a smoldering landscape of gray.

The 150 or so inhabitants of Masca, a hamlet of historic buildings, were still camping out in a sports pavilion after their village was hit by a "huge wave of heat and fire," he said.

"It's desolate. Everything is completely gray," Abreu told Cadena Ser, a national radio station. "But tomorrow it will be less gray. Nature is very strong."

Naturalists studying an endangered bird, the blue chaffinch, on Gran Canaria said the pine forests that were its habitat burned like kindling.

The islands are home to about 2,000 native species of plants and animals, according to the tourist board. They are also a trove of unique flora and fauna that drew the attention of Charles Darwin in the 19th century.

There were only about 150 of the blue chaffinch before the blazes, according to El País.

Despite the grim picture, officials emphasized yesterday that the fires did not affect the tourist spots that draw millions of visitors each year and represent more than half the islands' income.

"The Canary Islands are an amazing place for tourists to visit, and that hasn't been affected," José Segura, the central government's representative in the Canaries, said in a telephone interview.

Ricardo Melchior, head of the regional authority of Tenerife, said members of the civil guard, a local police force, found a device they believe was used to start the fire in Tenerife and have a list of arson suspects.

A former forest ranger who lost his job has already confessed to starting the fire in Gran Canaria, according to the Associated Press.

Officials and representatives of firefighting teams dismissed suggestions that they mismanaged the blaze or had failed to invest enough in protecting against fires.

"We could have had all the resources in the world," Pérez said, "but with winds that fast and flames that big, we would not have been able to do more."