'Completely stunned': Raging forest fires in Portugal leave more than 60 dead

Raging forest fires in central Portugal killed at least 61 people, many of them trapped in their cars as flames swept over a road, in what Prime Minister Antonio Costa on Sunday called “the biggest tragedy of human life that we have known in years.”

Interior Ministry official Jorge Gomes said at least 30 people died inside their cars as they tried to flee. He said 17 others died right outside their cars or by the road, 11 people died in the forest and two people died in a car accident related to the fire. He said there was no information on the other two deaths.

So far, no one has been reported killed by the fire inside a house.

Gomes said 54 people have also been injured, five of them seriously, including four firefighters and a minor.

The fatalities occurred in the Pedrogao Grande area, about 150 kilometres northeast of Lisbon, where about 700 firefighters have been trying to put out the fires since Saturday, Gomes said.

Portugal Forest Fires

Police investigators stand by a burnt car on the road between Castanheira de Pera and Figueiro dos Vinhos in central Portugal. (Armando Franca/Associated Press)

Gomes said many of the victims were killed when their vehicles were engulfed by flames on a road between the towns of Figueiro dos Vinhos and Castanheira de Pera.

A huge wall of thick smoke and bright red flames towered over the top of trees near houses in the wooded region.

Local resident Isabel Brandao told The Associated Press that she had feared for her life.

“Yesterday we saw the fire but thought it was very far. I never thought it would come to this side,” she said. “At 3:30 a.m., my mother-in-law woke me up quickly and we never went to sleep again. We were afraid the fire would reach us.”

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This truck was in the path of a forest fire near Figueiro dos Vinhos. (Rafael Marchante/Reuters)

RTP showed terrifying images of several people on a road trying to escape the intense smoke that had reduced visibility to a question of a few metres. A young man shared a bottle of water with a distraught woman as she stumbled down the road.

Costa said that firefighting crews were having difficulties in approaching the area because the fire was “very intense.” He added that Portuguese authorities were working on identifying the victims and that Spanish rescuers would assist in efforts to control the blazes.

High temperatures in recent days

Costa said that while investigations are ongoing to determine the cause of the fire, authorities believe that the high temperatures of 40 C in recent days may have played a part.

“This is a region that has had fires because of its forests, but we cannot remember a tragedy of these proportions,” said Valdemar Alves, mayor of Pedrogao Grande. “I am completely stunned by the number of deaths.”

Portugal, like most southern European countries, is prone to forest fires in the dry summer months.

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A man stands on the roadside watching a wildfire at Anciao, Leiria in central Portugal. (Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images)

The Portuguese government has declared three days of national mourning for the victims.

Portugal’s national soccer team is wearing black arm bands and has stood for a moment of silence with the Mexican team in solidarity with the country’s forest fire victims. The ceremony took place before the teams’ match Sunday at the Confederations Cup tournament in Kazan, Russia.

The European Commission said it is working with EU member states to respond to the call for assistance.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker sent a letter to Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, expressing “profound sadness” for the fire in Pedrogao Grande and offering “most felt solidarity.”

Juncker wrote in the letter that “Our thoughts are with all the victims, their families and all the brave soldiers of peace that in a very difficult terrain and under challenging circumstances continue to fight this terrible fire.”

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