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Spain Wildfires Threaten To Burn Garajonay National Park, UNESCO World Heritage Site

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SPAIN WILDFIRES
In this photo taken on Saturday, Aug. 4, 2012, smoke clings to the trees as fires burn in La Palma, Spain. Wildfires fanned by fierce winds and high temperatures raged across Spain's Canary Islands of La Palma and La Gomera on Sunday. Flames are threatening to cut off La Gomera's phone communications and have forced the evacuation of hundreds of people. (AP Photo/Juan Arturo) | AP

EL CERCADO, Spain — Fierce wildfires forced the evacuation of thousands of residents and were threatening some of Spain's most precious natural parks, including one that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, officials said Sunday.

Fires on the Canary islands of La Gomera and Tenerife led to the evacuation of more than 4,000 residents beginning late Saturday and the cutting off of many roads as precautionary measures, the regional government said.

By mid-afternoon Sunday, residents were still not allowed to return to 18 towns and villages that had been evacuated, eight on the popular tourist island of Tenerife and 10 on La Gomera, the government said.

Regional official Nancy Melo said there was evidence the fire on La Gomera was started deliberately because "it had two focal points three kilometers (2 miles) apart that began burning vigorously within a short space of time from each other."

A statement said firefighting crews working on the islands were "finding it difficult to limit the spread of fire."

"We are living through hell, we have asked the central government for more resources with which to fight the fire," said Casimimo Curbelo, local government leader of La Gomera.

At the heart of his island lies Garajonay National Park, which experts say contains woodlands that have survived since the Tertiary age, 11 million years ago. Garajonay was declared a World Heritage Site by the U.N. cultural agency in 1986 and is a very rare example of the type of humid subtropical forest that once covered almost all of Europe before the arrival of humans.

"We are heartbroken, we feel we have lost our beautiful, irreplaceable island," said Armenia Mendoza, a wine producer who was one of the first residents to report the outbreak of the fire to emergency services.

The fire was raging out of control, said Mendoza, who wept and added that it was "almost unthinkable a native islander could have done this on purpose."

Water-carrying aircraft that doused flames when the fire first broke out there a week ago were sent away after officials decided the outbreak was under control. But the blaze was rekindled by winds and high temperatures, Melo said.

Due to the islands' location, 1,380 kilometers (850 miles) off Spain's southwestern tip, it can take up to a day for propeller-driven firefighting planes to return once deployed back to the mainland.

A dry winter has been followed by a scorching summer, with temperatures reaching 44 Celsius (111 Fahrenheit) in southern areas in recent days. The state meteorological agency has warned of "a high risk of fires in the country."

Regional governments reported 10 wildfires raging across Spain on Sunday.

An outbreak at Cabaneros National Park in the west was causing concern because it is considered the largest surviving area of Iberian Mediterranean forest, pinelands that are home to an enormous variety of plant species and endangered fauna such as the Spanish Imperial Eagle.

Another fire was affecting Donana natural park in the southwest, an area of outstanding natural beauty which is also a valuable stopping-off location for Western Europe's migrating birds.

Fires in Spain and other Mediterranean countries char hundreds of thousands of acres every year.

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Heckle reported from Madrid.

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