63 dead in wildfire; many tried escape
NODEIRINHO, PORTUGAL | Survivors emerged Monday with stories of leaping into water tanks and other dramatic escapes from the forest fires scorching central Portugal, and authorities came under mounting criticism for not doing more to prevent Portugal’s deadliest natural disaster in decades.
More than 2,700 firefighters were still battling Monday to contain several major wildfires in the area northeast of Lisbon, where one blaze that began Saturday killed 63 people, many of them as they tried to flee the flames in their cars. The 63rd death, reported Monday, was an injured firefighter, one of four firefighters hospitalized since Sunday morning due to serious burns suffered during the first hours of fighting the blaze.
Water-dropping planes from Spain, France and Italy arrived as part of a European Union cooperation program, but they were grounded in some places because thick smoke limited visibility, officials said. That left firefighters — backed by fire engines and bulldozers — to do the heavy work on the ground in temperatures that approached 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
Firefighters brought some of the blazes under control, but other wildfires still raced through inaccessible parts of the area’s steep hills, the Civil Protection Agency said.
Portugal is observing three days of national mourning after the deaths Saturday night around the town of Pedrogao Grande, 90 miles north of Lisbon.
Scorching weather, as well as strong winds and woods that are bone-dry after weeks with little rain, fueled the blazes. Villages dot the landscape, much of it now scorched.
In Nodeirinho, a hillside village of a few dozen people, 84-year-old Marta da Conceicao said residents called the fire services more than 20 times for help on Saturday.
“Nobody came. They were up in the mountain or somewhere else,” she said in an interview. “Here it was up to God and the people.”
As the flames licked at her, burning her leg, she and her elderly neighbors survived by jumping into a water storage tank.
More than 2,000 firefighters in Portugal battled Monday to contain major wildfires in the central region of the country, where one blaze killed dozens of people, as authorities came under mounting criticism for not doing more to prevent the conflagration.