By Guillermo Martinez
BARRACAS, Spain (Reuters) – Officials told ‘fire tourists’ to keep away from blazes raging in eastern Spain on Sunday, saying onlookers were putting themselves at risk and disrupting efforts to quell the flames.
More than 500 firefighters backed by 20 planes and helicopters were battling the fire four days after it broke out near the village of Villanueva de Viver in Valencia region, emergency services said.
Police had spotted 14 cyclists near the scene trying to get a closer look, Gabriela Bravo, the regional head of interior affairs in the Valencia region, told reporters.
“We ask once again and above all tourists not to engage in fire tourism, not to approach the perimeter area,” she said.
Spain’s first major wildfire of the year has destroyed more than 4,000 hectares (9,900 acres) of forest and forced 1,700 villagers to leave their homes in the Valencia and Aragon regions, officials said.
One firefighter slightly injured his hand as he battled the blaze, emergency services said.
Around 200 residents from the Teruel area of Aragon were allowed to return home on Sunday, authorities said.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez was due to visit the area on Monday, his office said.
Residents said the fire could have a devastating impact on the local economy which depended on tourism.
“The people here live from cycling, hiking, and the few bars,” said Jorge Grausell, 72.
“You see this and it is a disaster for anyone who likes nature.”
An unusually dry winter across parts of southern Europe has raised fears there could be a repeat of last year’s devastating wildfires.
Last year, about 785,000 hectares were destroyed in Europe, more than double the annual average for the past 16 years, based on European Commission statistics.
In Spain, 493 fires destroyed a record 307,000 hectares of land last year, according to the Commission’s European Forest Fire Information System.
(Reporting by Graham Keeley, Miguel Gutierrez,; Guillermo Martinez; Editing by Andrew Heavens)