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Figueres - Hundreds of firefighters, backed by water-bombing planes, battled a wind-fuelled wildfire in north-east Spain on Monday that left four French nationals dead and trapped thousands of people indoors.
The blaze claimed its fourth life on Monday when a 64-year-old Frenchman, who suffered 80-percent burns after his car was engulfed in flames, died at a Barcelona hospital, the Catalan regional government said.
Another 23 people were injured, including eight who remain in hospital, it added.
The wildfire broke out on Sunday near the town of La Junquera and spread rapidly across the Alt Emporda region near the French border, whipped up by winds of up to 90km/h.
Smoke from the blaze, which has so far ravaged up to 13 000 hectares of land, reached Barcelona, Spain's second-biggest city located 150km south of the border.
The fire remained “out of control”, the interior minister of Catalonia, Felip Puig, told reporters.
It was likely caused by a cigarette butt or small explosive device that caught fire due to “recklessness or negligence”, he added.
Over 1 500 people were battling the blaze, including over 500 firefighters and 150 volunteers who worked alongside police, soldiers and forest guards, a spokesperson for Catalan firefighters said.
They were backed by 22 French and Spanish water-bombing planes. Officials were not able to deploy aircraft against the flames on Sunday due to the strong winds.
“It started yesterday at one o'clock in the afternoon, at Perthus, near La Jonquera. The wind was very strong, a strong north wind, we immediately saw clouds of smoke rising,” said Miguel Arche, 54, from the town of Terrade.
“It was impressive. And then, at around 6pm, the fire had reached Llers, it was very strong, on a very wide front.”
Firefighters managed to bring the front of the fire burning near the town of Portbou just across the border with France under control on Sunday night.
A Frenchman and his 15-year-old daughter died on Sunday after they abandoned their car and threw themselves off a cliff into the sea to escape the approaching flames near the town.
The man's wife and their two other children were injured in their escape bid and are in hospital.
“From where they jumped, you would have to project yourself about one metre to reach the sea. They probably did not jump far enough and they hit the rocks below,” said Portbou mayor Jose Luis Salas-Mallol.
A 75-year-old Frenchman man died of a heart attack as he watched his house consumed by flames in the town of Llers.
Firefighters ordered thousands of residents in 17 towns, including La Jonquera and Figueres, to remain indoors with their windows and doors shut because of the threat from the smoke and flames.
Hundreds of people spent the night in emergency shelters set up in the region, mostly in the town of Figueres which is about 20km south of La Junquera.
Officials reopened a key highway linking Figueres to the French city of Perpignan in both directions on Monday. The road had been shut on two separate occasions since the wildfire began on Sunday.
A high-speed rail link between Spain and France was also re-opened.
The charred remains of dozens of sheep who were killed by the flames could be seen near the village of Darnius.
Spain is at higher risk of forest fires than ever this summer after suffering its driest winter in 70 years.
The worst fire ravaged 50 000 hectares in the eastern Spanish region of Valencia earlier this month. - Sapa-AFP