61 peo­ple killed in rag­ing for­est fire in cen­tral Por­tu­gal

Light­ning cited as spark in what pre­mier calls ‘big­gest tragedy’ in years

The Washington Post - - THE WORLD - BY HE­LENA ALVES AND AR­MANDO FRANCA

pe­dro­gao grande, por­tu­gal — A rag­ing for­est fire in cen­tral Por­tu­gal sent flames sweep­ing over roads, killing at least 61 peo­ple, many of them trapped in their cars as they tried to flee, of­fi­cials said Sun­day. 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 150 kilo­me­ters (95 miles) north­east of Lis­bon where a light­ning strike was thought to have sparked the blaze Satur­day. In­ves­ti­ga­tors found a tree that was hit dur­ing a “dry thun­der­storm,” the head of the na­tional ju­di­cial po­lice told Por­tuguese me­dia.

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 on Sun­day, 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,” said Prime Min­is­ter An­to­nio Costa told re­porters on his ar­rival at the scene Sun­day. “Some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary has taken place and we have to wait for tech­ni­cians to prop­erly de­ter­mine its causes.”

He said the death toll was low­ered from the pre­vi­ously re­ported 62 vic­tims be­cause one per­son had been counted twice. How­ever, he added that “there’s no point in feel­ing joy­ful for that, be­cause surely we will find more vic­tims as we progress.” Po­lice are search­ing charred ar­eas of the for­est and iso­lated homes for more bod­ies.

More than 350 sol­diers on Sun­day joined the 700 fire­fight­ers who have been strug­gling to put out the blaze. Au­thor­i­ties say tem­per­a­tures as high as 40 de­grees Cel­sius (104 Fahren­heit) 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.

Res­i­dent Is­abel Bran­dao told the As­so­ci­ated Press that she had feared for her life when she saw the blaze.

“Yes­ter­day we saw the fire but thought it was very far. I never thought it would come to this side,” she said Sun­day. “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.”

Other lo­cals were also shocked.

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

State broad­caster RTP showed ter­ri­fy­ing im­ages of sev­eral peo­ple on a road try­ing to es­cape the in­tense smoke, which had re­duced vis­i­bil­ity to a few me­ters (yards). A young man shared a bot­tle of wa­ter with a dis­traught woman as she stum­bled down the road.

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 spread the blaze far­ther.

Schools in the area were closed and out­door fires were banned, au­thor­i­ties an­nounced Sun­day.

Gomes gave a grim de­scrip­tion of the deaths to RTP. 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 said 17 oth­ers died right out­side their cars or by the road; 11 peo­ple died in the for­est; two peo­ple died in a car crash re­lated to the fire; and in­for­ma­tion was miss­ing on the other deaths.

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

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.

There was no im­me­di­ate iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the vic­tims. Por­tu­gal es­tab­lished a spe­cial diplo­matic chan­nel for em­bassies to re­ceive in­for­ma­tion on for­eign cit­i­zens who “may be af­fected” by the fire.

The Euro­pean Union re­sponded to a call for as­sis­tance by Por­tuguese au­thor­i­ties. As a re­sult, Spain sent four fire­fight­ing air­craft on Sun­day. France was also send­ing three air­craft and Greece’s prime min­is­ter also of­fered to send fire­fight­ing help.

Many world lead­ers, in­clud­ing French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron, Pope Fran­cis 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.”

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

Coach Fer­nando San­tos, Cris­tiano Ron­aldo and the rest of the play­ers re­leased a state­ment say­ing, “in this sad hour, we send our deep­est sym­pa­thies to the fam­i­lies, friends and loved ones of the vic­tims of the fires.”

FIFA Pres­i­dent Gianni In­fantino, at­tend­ing the match in Rus­sia, also of­fered his con­do­lences.

“We want to send a big hug to ev­ery­one in Por­tu­gal for what they are go­ing through, which is ab­so­lutely ter­ri­ble. There are no words for that,” he told re­porters.

PAULO CUNHA/EURO­PEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY PAULO NOVAIS/EURO­PEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

TOP: A woman re­acts dur­ing a fire in Pampil­hosa da Serra, cen­tral Por­tu­gal, on Sun­day. Many of those who died were trapped in ve­hi­cles as they tried to flee. LEFT: Fire crews bat­tle a blaze in Figueiro dos Vin­hos. More than 350 sol­diers have joined the 700 fire­fight­ers work­ing to ex­tin­guish the flames.

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