Smoke clings to the forest as flames burn the forest near the highway in La Jonquera, Spain, near the border with France, Sunday, July 22, 2012. The regional officials said wildfires have burned almost 7,000 hectares (17.297 acres) of forest. (AP Photo/Josep Ribas)
TERRADES, Spain (AP) — A vacationing French family of five fell or jumped off a seaside cliff during a desperate attempt to escape a raging wildfire, with the father and one of his children plummeting at least 20 meters (65 feet) to their deaths, authorities said Monday.
Flames forced the family and about 150 other tourists out of their cars Sunday night as most were returning home to France, and the group scrambled down hillsides toward the beach in the border town of Portbou to escape the blaze, said Deputy Mayor Elisabet Cortaba.
The family became separated from the rest of the group on their way down and ended up at the edge of a very steep cliff with only one way out as the fire fanned by heavy winds approached them, Cortaba said.
They couldn't climb back up because of the fire, so the mother tried to scale down the crumbly cliff-face, but lost her grip and fell, said Tony Buixeda, the town's port manager, who was at the scene in a boat and saw the desperate family atop the precipice.
The family's teenage daughter told other rescuers she jumped, but Buixeda said he did not know whether the rest jumped or fell because he was already swimming towards the mother.
Some witnesses "said they threw themselves off, others said they fell," Buixeda said. "The only thing they could do was go to the water."
The 60-year-old father died instantly after landing on submerged rocks, and his 15-year-old daughter drowned, Cortaba said.
The mother was in a critical condition Monday with a back injury, and the son and other daughter did not suffer life-threatening injuries. All were fished from the sea by Portbou boaters and their identities were not released, Cortaba said.
Two other people were also killed by the weekend fires in northeastern Spain that have burned 90 square kilometers (35 square miles), including one man who had a heart attack dousing flames around his home. They were also French, said French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero.
Many of the tourists that made it to the beach in Portbou suffered injuries ranging from broken bones and burns in their dash down the hillsides with no well-used paths, Cortaba said.
The trip down the hillside was also complicated for those fleeing because of thick smoke that seriously reduced visibility. The French family of five "just had bad luck that they went down the wrong way," Buixeda said.
The fires that broke out Sunday in several parts of the Catalonia region forced more than 1,400 people to stay the night in shelters. Fires were still burning Monday in many places, with roads cut off because of the billowing smoke. In some areas farmers were helping firefighters by driving water tanker trucks to burning areas.
Train service in the region was suspended and several cross-border roads linking Barcelona with France closed because of the advancing flames, regional government spokesman Felip Puig said Sunday.
Santiago Villa, mayor of Figueres, which houses the famous Salvador Dali museum, said he had ordered the city's 44,000 residents to stay indoors until further notice.
The fire service said in a statement that more than 80 teams had been deployed to combat the wildfires.
The Interior Ministry said in a statement it had sent three specially equipped aircraft to dump water on the fires.
A north wind called the Tramontana is a regular feature in mountainous northeastern Spain, and its strong gusts that often exceed 100 mph (160 kph) can spread fires rapidly across the heavily forested area.
Clendenning reported from Madrid. Harold Heckle contributed from Madrid and Elaine Ganley contributed from Paris.
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