Saturday 24 February 2018

Deadly Portugal forest fire extinguished as head of volunteer firefighters suspects fire had 'criminal origins'

Police have said the fire was caused by dry lightning strikes

A firefighter walks close to a wildfire in Carvalho, central Portugal. Photo: AFP/Getty
A firefighter walks close to a wildfire in Carvalho, central Portugal. Photo: AFP/Getty
A fire fighting aircraft drops water over a fire outside the village of Pedrogao Grande central Portugal, Monday, June 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Paulo Duarte)
Firefighters work to stop a forest blaze from reaching the village of Figueiro dos Vinhos in central Portugal (AP Photo/Paulo Duarte)
A burnt truck next to a gate in the village of Pobrais, near Pedrogao Grande, central Portugal (Armando Franca/AP)
A firefighter works to stop a forest fire from reaching houses in Curral dos Romeiros, on the outskirts of Funchal (AP)
Men spray water on the roofs of houses to protect them from an approaching fire in Curral dos Romeiros, on the outskirts of Funchal, on the Madeira island, Portugal (AP Photo/Helder Santos)
A firefighter works to stop a fire in Quintela, near Arouca, in the region of Aveiro, northern Portugal (AP)
Smoke from forest fires rises above Funchal, the capital of Portugal's Madeira island (AP Photo/Helder Santos)

Rafael Marchange

Firefighters extinguished the deadliest forest fire in Portugal's recent history on Wednesday, though blazes persisted in nearby central and other areas of the country.

The main fire, which erupted on Saturday and spread with breathtaking speed, killed 64 people as they tried to flee in cars or were engulfed in flames in remote villages in a hilly region about 200 km (125 miles) northeast of Lisbon.

More than 150 people have been injured.

Victor Vaz Pinto, commander of the civil protection agency, said the fire in the area near the town of Pedrogao Grande had been put out. It was the biggest single blaze ever registered in the Iberian country.

Another serious fire continued to burn to the north of Pedrogao Grande, forcing the evacuation of several villages. But abnormally high temperatures are forecast to fall in coming days and should help the firefighters' efforts.

Prime Minister Antonio Costa has requested explanations for what went wrong in the initial response by emergency services. As the immediate danger from the fires subsides, demands for answers could rise.

Police have said the fire was caused by dry lightning strikes and spread so quickly due to an unusually dangerous mix of low humidity, extremely high temperatures and powerful winds.

But investigators said on Wednesday they would question the head of the country's volunteer firefighters, Jaime Marta Soares, who has said he suspects the fire had "criminal origins."

According to data from the European Forest Fire Information System, more than 40,000 hectares of Portugese forest has burnt, far more than the average of just under 10,000 hectares burnt by this time of the year during 2008-16.

With weather forecasters predicting an unusually hot summer, authorities are concerned that there could be many more blazes during July and August when typically the biggest fires strike.

Last year, wildfires destroyed 115,000 hectares (284,170 acres) of woods, an area the size of 100,000 soccer fields.

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