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Fire in Panama's largest landfill blows toxic smoke over capital

(Reuters) - A large blaze at a garbage dump outside Panama City blew a toxic smoke in the country's capital on Friday, forcing evacuations as firefighters battled to put out the flames that authorities said were likely caused by arson the night before.

Firefighers told a press conference that the garbage dump known as Cerro Patacon, the largest in the country, had between 6 and 8 hectares (15-20 acres) its more than 130 (321 acres) affected by the fire.

"Everything points to the fire being started deliberately," firefighter chief Ernesto de Leon told a press conference.

Health Minister Luis Francisco Sucre told reporters evacuations were being effected to protect residents from the flames and toxic gases. Health centers were also set up to treat cases of visual irritation and respiratory problems, he added.

Sucre advised vulnerable people in affected areas to move or to use air conditioning and face masks.

Videos on social media showed a helicopter flying above the thick gray smoke spraying down water as birds scatter overhead.

Citing the fire department's Lieutenant Angel Delgado, local outlet La Prensa reported that some $350,000 had been spent on the disaster, though the figure could soon exceed half a million.

Since 6 a.m. some 7,360 gallons (around 28,000 liters) of water have been sprayed over the area, authorities told reporters, saying some 60% of the blaze was controlled and this could reach 90% by Saturday.

President Laurentino Cortizo said on X that an action plan had been activated "from the moment the fire broke out."

Though authorities had been evicting the around 75 families that live in the immediate area since Thursday night, outlet La Prensa said, many had refused to leave their often makeshift homes.

According to local media at least 15 fires broke out at Cerro Patacon over 2023.

(Reporting by Sarah Morland and Valentine Hilaire; Editing by Sandra Maler)