Saturday 26 May 2018

Three days of mourning declared in Portugal as wildfire kills 61

Firefighters rest as they combat a wildfire at Penela, Coimbra, central Portugal Photo: Getty
Firefighters rest as they combat a wildfire at Penela, Coimbra, central Portugal Photo: Getty

Helena Alves and Armando Franca

A raging forest fire in central Portugal sent flames sweeping over roads, killing at least 61 people including four children, many of them trapped in their cars as they tried to flee.

The country's prime minister called it "the biggest tragedy" that Portugal has experienced in decades and declared three days of national mourning.

A huge wall of thick smoke and bright red flames towered over the top of trees in the forested Pedrogao Grande area some 150km north-east of Lisbon where a lightning strike was believed to have sparked the blaze on Saturday.

Investigators found a tree that was hit during a "dry thunderstorm", the head of the national judicial police told Portuguese media.

A policeman walks on a road past burnt cars in Figueiro dos Vinhos Photo: Getty
A policeman walks on a road past burnt cars in Figueiro dos Vinhos Photo: Getty

Dry thunderstorms are frequent when falling water evaporates before reaching the ground because of high temperatures. Portugal, like most southern European countries, is prone to forest fires in the dry summer months.

At least four other significant wildfires affected different areas of the country yesterday, but the one in Pedrogao Grande was responsible for all the deaths.

"The dimensions of this fire have caused a human tragedy beyond any in our memory," Prime Minister Antonio Costa told reporters on his arrival at the scene.

"Something extraordinary has taken place and we have to wait for technicians to properly determine its causes."

Anabela Silva stands in front of her house with her burnt car in the background Photo: Getty
Anabela Silva stands in front of her house with her burnt car in the background Photo: Getty

Destroyed

He said the death toll was lowered from the previously reported 62 victims because one person had been counted twice.

More than 350 soldiers yesterday joined the 700 firefighters who have been struggling to put out the blaze. Authorities say temperatures as high as 40C in the area in recent days might have also played a part in the inferno.

The forest fire deaths were the biggest in memory in Portugal, which saw 25 Portuguese soldiers die fighting wildfires in 1966. Last August, an outbreak of fires across Portugal killed four people, including three on the island of Madeira, and destroyed huge areas of forest.

Read More: Advice issued to tourists visiting tragedy-hit country

Ana Morada, one of 200 people who spent the night at a makeshift shelter at a local football club, said: "It was horrible. I had my grandma on the phone surrounded by flames and begging me for help.

"I managed to contact a relative who got her out. I saw neighbours running from their cars that were burning. The only firm in the area has burnt to the ground.

"It's a catastrophe."

Susana Antunes fought back tears as she told Portuguese newspaper 'Jornal de Noticias': "Everything went up to flames in 15 minutes. My grandparents had to run out of their house barefoot."

Distressing footage broadcast on Portuguese TV yesterday showed a woman being led away by her house, visibly upset and being given water to drink to save her from collapsing as she cried out, 'My house, my house' against a backdrop of thick smoke and flames.

Resident Isabel Brandao said she had feared for her life when she saw the blaze. "At 3.30am, my mother-in-law woke me up quickly and we never went to sleep again," she said. "We were afraid the fire would reach us."

Valdemar Alves, the mayor of Pedrogao Grande, said the region "cannot remember a tragedy of these proportions".

State broadcaster RTP showed terrifying images of several people on a road trying to escape the intense smoke that had reduced visibility to a few metres.

Interior Ministry official Jorge Gomes said firefighting crews were having difficulties battling the fire, which was "very intense" in at least two of its four fronts. He said authorities were worried about strong winds that could help spread the blaze further.

Mr Gomes gave a grim description of the deaths. He said at least 30 people died inside their cars as they tried to flee between the towns of Figueiro dos Vinhos and Castanheira de Pera. He says 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 and information was missing on the other deaths.

Mr Gomes said 54 people were also injured in the fire, five of them seriously, including four firefighters and a minor.

Mr Costa tweeted his "deepest regret for the victims...and a word of encouragement and strength for all who help combat this scourge".

"We are most likely facing the biggest tragedy of human life that we have known," he said.

Many world leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, expressed solidarity with Portugal. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy tweeted that he is "overwhelmed by the tragedy at Pedrogao Grande. The Portuguese people can count on our solidarity, support and care".

Speaking in the Vatican, Pope Francis, who visited Portugal last month, mentioned the victims in his weekly address.

"I am close to the dear people of Portugal, hit by a devastating fire which is raging in the forests around Pedrogao Grande, causing many victims and injuries," he said.

Irish Independent

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