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Guardsmen walk next to burned trees near Seglingsberg, Central Sweden, on 6 August.Forest owners are preparing for large losses as French water-bombing planes arrived to help emergency services gain control of the biggest forest fire in Sweden's modern history.

One reconnaissance aircraft and two water-bombing planes arrived from France, Fredrik Eriksson, an emergency service spokesman, said Wednesday by phone. They will start work "as soon as possible," using water from the nearby lake Aamaenningen or from lake Maelaren, south of the engulfed area. Two Italian planes are also on their way.

The blaze, near Sala about 100 kilometres northwest of the capital Stockholm, has been raging since 31 July. The main forest owners in the affected area – Sveaskog, Bergvik Skog and AB Karl Hedin – have lost thousands of hectares of trees since the fire broke out. The blaze has affected an area covering 15,000 hectares.

"We can't yet say how much we've lost but it's of course large sums of money given that such a big area has burned," Helene Baeck, a spokeswoman for state-owned Sveaskog, said by phone Wednesday. The company has managed to contain the fire on its land since Aug. 2, she said, adding that 1,000 to 1,500 hectares of Sveaskog's forests have burned.

So far about 1,000 people have been evacuated from their homes while the roughly 4,500 inhabitants of Norberg prepared to leave their homes Tuesday as the fire spread. The town is no longer threatened by the blaze, authorities said Wednesday.

"While we must continue to work very hard, the conditions are better today than on Monday afternoon, when they were catastrophic with extremely low humidity and very strong winds," Eriksson said. "While the fire spread at a speed of 2 kilometres per hour on Monday afternoon, it's currently not spreading at all and we have managed to contain it within the affected area. We're now working on putting it out."

Sweden has had a dry and hot summer, increasing the risk of forest fires. Temperatures in the region reached 35.1 degrees on Monday, the highest August temperature recorded in Sweden since 1992. Dry heat and wind on Monday drove the flames into treetops, Eriksson said.

Temperatures in Norberg are forecast to range between 20 and 24 degrees Celsius in the coming five days, according to weather forecasts from the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute. There may be some rain in the area Wednesday and on 10 August, the forecasts show.

The blaze had spread to cover an area of 150 square kilometres and emergency services have deployed some 150 firefighters, while the military has a further 150 people in the area, according to Eriksson. There are a total of 17 helicopters deployed to contain the fire. In addition to the three French planes, two Italian planes are also scheduled to arrive in the area shortly, according to local authorities.

The site of the blaze consists mainly of pine forests, bogs and marshlands, surrounded by lakes. The fire is thought to have started during ground work as machines prepared to plant new trees, according to Sveaskog, Sweden's largest forest owner. The blaze didn't start at any of Sveaskog's sites, the company said.

Bergvik Skog, whose biggest shareholder is Helsinki-based Stora Enso, said at least 2,500 hectares of its forests have burned. It's too early to estimate the cost as the fire is still raging, spokesman Lars-Erik Wigert said by phone.

Niklas Magnusson – Bloomberg News
Image: Maja Suslin / AFP / Lehtikuva / TT NEWS AGENCY