Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Paraguay declares emergency as forest fires rage

Reuters: Paraguay declared a state of emergency in three northeastern provinces on Tuesday due to forest fires that have ravaged thousands of hectares (acres) of forests, crops and grazing pasture.

The fires have spread in recent days, destroying dozens of rural homes in the poor South American country and forcing some flights to be diverted from the biggest airport earlier this week because of the smoke.

"At the moment, we're trying to resolve the problem, tackle the crisis and deal with the circumstances," Trade and Industry Minister Jose Maria Ibanez told reporters after a cabinet meeting amid growing criticism of the government's response. The regional state of emergency was declared in the provinces of San Pedro, Concepcion and Amambay, giving authorities extra resources to fight the fires and help victims.

Meanwhile, the Agriculture Ministry said 400 soldiers would be sent to the worst-affected areas where troops and firefighters are already working to control the fires. Aid trucks stocked with food and tents were sent for evacuees. "With these measures, I think the situation can be brought under control, though not 100 percent until we get some rain," said the government's farming chief, Alfredo Molinas.

The fires were initially started by peasant farmers clearing wooded areas and renewing pastures -- a common practice in Paraguay, but dry conditions have caused them to spread over an estimated 100,000 hectares (247,100 acres), officials say.

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