Portugal mourns as forest fires kill more than 60
Portugal has declared three days of national mourning after the deadliest forest fires in recent memory raged across central areas of the country, killing at least 60 people. Many of those who died burned to death in their cars as they tried to flee the flames, while others were overcome by smoke.
Portugal’s prime minister, António Costa, described the blazes as “the greatest tragedy we have seen in recent years in terms of forest fires”, and warned that the death toll could rise. He said the fires could have been caused by dry thunderstorms, adding: “The priority now is to save those people who could still be in danger.” Such storms occur when falling water evaporates before reaching the ground because of high temperatures. The Iberian peninsula is sweltering under a severe heatwave, with temperatures surging past 40C (104F).
Several hundred firefighters and 160 woke me up quickly and we never went to sleep again. We were afraid the fire would reach us.”
Brandao said the devastation caused by the fire had been made worse by the dry conditions. “The problem is that there was no rain,” she said. “If it had rained, this would not happen.”
Valdemar Alves, Pedrógão Grande’s mayor, said he was stunned by the number of deaths. “This is a region that has had fires because of its forests, but we cannot remember a tragedy of these proportions,” he said.
Dozens of people who fled their homes were taken in by residents of the nearby municipality of Ansião. “There are people who arrived saying they didn’t want to die in their homes, which were surrounded by flames,” Ricardo Tristao from Ansião told reporters.
The Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, promised to provide any assistance necessary, tweeting: “Shocked by the tragedy in Pedrógão Grande. The Portuguese people can depend on our solidarity, support and affection.”
The president of the European commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, tweeted: “My thoughts are with the victims in Portugal. I commend the bravery of the firefighters. EU civil protection mechanism activated and will help.”
In Rome, Pope Francis led thousands of people in silent prayer for the victims of what he called the “devastating fire” in Portugal, while the Portuguese football team offered its “deepest sympathies to the families, friends and loved ones of the victims of the fires”.
A number of villages were affected by the main fire and evacuation procedures had been put in place for some of them, according to Costa. Officials were not immediately able to comment on the extent of the damage.
Portugal’s president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, went to Leiria to meet families of the victims yesterday, “sharing their pain in the name of all the Portuguese people”. He said that firefighters had done all they could when faced with the blaze.
Portugal, like most of southern Europe, is prone to forest fires in the dry summer months. The country was hit by a series of fires last year which devastated more than 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) of the mainland.
Last August, fires on the tourist island of Madeira, 1,000 miles south of Lisbon in the Atlantic, killed three people, while over the course of 2016 about 40 homes were destroyed and 5,400 hectares of land burned.