Thousands evacuated as Canary Isles sandstorm fuels wildfires
The Calima sandstorm has forced thousands to evacuate their homes and left tourists stranded, while the elderly were warned against going outdoors [Borja Suarez/Reuters]
Madrid, Spain – “They were the longest 15 seconds of my life,” said Lali Gutierrez, recalling how she and her family scrambled to escape a wildfire which advanced towards her home in Tenerife.
“We grabbed our two dogs and a cat when they told us to leave, and that was all we had time for.”
The 56-year-old told Al Jazeera of her escape from a blaze caused by a sandstorm which has wreaked chaos in the Spanish Canary Islands.
Strong winds of up to 120 kmh (75mph) carried red sand more than 100 kilometres from the Sahara to the archipelago, which is popular with tourists all year round.
The gusts fanned three wildfires, forcing about 2,000 residents to flee their homes in Tenerife and Gran Canaria with whatever belongings they could grab.
The eight islands were on Monday covered in a murky red haze which could be seen from space – and which witnesses described as resembling the surface of Mars.
Over the weekend, 745 flights were cancelled and 84 more were diverted to other airports because of the high winds and low visibility.
Hundreds of tourists were left stranded at the airports or forced to find hotels, many of which subsequently raised their prices.
Paul Bevan, 58, a photographer from Winchester in the United Kingdom, was due to leave Gran Canaria on Sunday – but his flight was cancelled.
“I came here on Saturday, then I was booked to go back Sunday night but I had to book a hotel,” he told Al Jazeera. “The hotels were getting full and they started to charge silly money like 1,200 pounds ($1,550) – but I got a hotel for 75 pounds.”
Dramatic Spanish television pictures showed firefighters battling blazes fuelled by the hot winds across the islands.
Just breathing has been painful for Blas Padron since the storm arrived in his native Gran Canaria on Saturday.
“It has been difficult to inhale with this dust, but for those with breathing difficulties, they have been advised to stay inside because of the acrid sand. This dust clogs up your throat,” Padron, a retired firefighter, told Al Jazeera.
“This is the worst calima – or sandstorm – which I have seen in my life, and I am 62.”
The dust cloud remains hanging over the island.
“It is Dantesque and brutal. It seems like Mars,” said Emilio Cuevas Agullo, of the Spanish Meteorological Agency.
“We are experiencing a tremendous sandstorm which will probably go down as the worst of its kind in history since records began.”
All primary schools and the islands’ two universities were closed on Monday.
The sandstorm has struck just as the islands prepared to celebrate carnival season. Several towns have cancelled their traditional celebrations.
“It has been a nightmare of a weekend. We haven’t seen an episode like this for 40 years,” said Angel Victor Torres, head of the Canary Islands regional government.
But all eight airports were re-opened on Monday as conditions improved, the Spanish transport ministry said.
“The overnight improvement in the weather has allowed the resumption of air traffic in all airports in the Canary Islands,” the ministry said on Twitter.
Jose Luis Abalos, the transport minister, tweeted: “Air transport professionals don’t remember seeing such adverse conditions for air transport in the islands.”
Located off the coast of Morocco and Western Sahara, the Canary Islands’ temperate climate means the archipelago is a magnet for tourists all year round. Last year, 13.1 million foreign visitors came to the islands, making it Spain’s third most-popular tourist region.