Sunday, 18 June 2017
Death toll from forest fire raging in Portugal climbs to 62
Raging forest fires in Portugal have killed at least 62 people, most of whom burnt to death in their cars, the government said Sunday (Jun 18), in one of the worst such disasters in recent history. The fire broke out on Saturday in the municipality of Pedrogao Grande in central Portugal, before spreading fast across several fronts.
On Sunday afternoon, nearly 900 firefighters and 300 vehicles were still battling the blaze as scenes of devastation could be seen around the town.
"Unfortunately, this seems to be the greatest tragedy we have seen in recent years in terms of forest fires," said a visibly moved Prime Minister Antonio Costa, who declared three days of mourning starting on Sunday.
The flowing expanse of hills situated between Pedrogao Grande, Figueiro do Vinhos to the west and Castanheira de Pera to the north, which 24 hours before had glowed bright green with eucalyptus plants and pine trees, were completely gutted by the flames.
A thick layer of white smoke hovered over either side of a national motorway for a distance of about 20km, as blackened trees leaned listlessly over charred soil.
A burnt-out car sat outside partly destroyed and abandoned houses, while a few metres away police in face masks surrounded the corpse of a man hidden under a white sheet
Secretary of State for the Interior Jorge Gomes said 62 people burned to death, mostly trapped in their cars engulfed by flames in the Leiria region.
"It is difficult to say if they were fleeing the flames or were taken by surprise," he said.
More than 50 people were injured, five critically, including one child and four firefighters.
"The number of fatalities could still rise," Costa said. "The priority now is to save those people who could still be in danger."
The European Union said it would provide firefighting planes following a request from Lisbon.
"France has offered three planes through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism and they will be quickly sent to assist the local emergency efforts," EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides said.
Portugal was sweltering under a severe heatwave over the weekend, with temperatures topping 40°C in several regions.
About 60 forest fires broke out across the country during the night, with around 1,700 firefighters battling to put them out.
"The fire is still raging on four fronts," Gomes said, two spreading "violently".
Dry thunderstorms were thought to have been the cause, according to the prime minister.
A number of villages were affected by the main fire and homes were evacuated. Some were sheltered in neighbouring areas.
Officials were not immediately able to comment on the extent of the damage.