Por­tu­gal mourns as for­est fires kill more than 60

The Guardian - - INTERNATIONAL - Sam Jones and agen­cies The sky is lit up by flames at Penela in the Coim­bra dis­trict of cen­tral Por­tu­gal, above; and a burnt-out car at Pe­drógão Grande, near where the for­est blazes broke out Main pho­to­graph: Pa­tri­cia de Melo Moreira/Getty

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.

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