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EU: July forest fires among worst on record

The forest fires in Europe last month were some of the worst on record as drought across southern Europe turned woods into tinder, the European Commission said Thursday.

Some 3,376 square kilometers (2,098 square miles) of forest - about three times the size of Moscow - have burned already this year, close to the 3,585 square kilometers (2,228 square miles) that went up in smoke all of last year, the EU executive said, quoting provisional figures from its European forest fire information system.

"It shows that July 2007 was one of the worst months on record and the worst July we have experienced since we started keeping and pooling information at European level," EU spokeswoman Antonia Mochan told reporters.

Forest fire records for Spain, Italy, France and Greece date back to 1985.

The commission said the second half of July saw a sharp increase in fires and burnt areas in Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece and Italy. Satellites images show 2,229 square kilometers (861 square miles) of burnt land in those countries alone.

It warned of worse ahead, saying the situation in southwest Europe has changed dramatically particularly in southern Spain and Portugal and Spain's Canary Islands.

"These two areas are experiencing increased fires ... and continued heightened risk," it said.

In the Canary Islands, some 14,000 people were evacuated Wednesday from homes, hotels and camp grounds on Tenerife, one of Europe's top tourist areas. The local government has blamed arsonists for the fires, the worst on the islands in 50 years.

Last week, wildfires in Greece killed three people in the south of the country, burning through villages and forests and stretching firefighting services to the limit.

Across southern Europe from Italy to Slovakia, fires have consumed forests, farmland and brush. Croatia recorded about 800 forest fires in July alone, which firefighters said was more than any summer in the past decade.

In Greece and Italy, officials have claimed some fires were set deliberately to clear land for development. But soaring temperatures from the region's second heat wave in as many months have also contributed to the fires by leaving vast parched swathes of land.

The EU said its figures have not yet added information from non-EU members Turkey and Albania that have also experienced major fires.

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