Por­tu­gal in mourn­ing af­ter deadly in­ferno

At least 62 peo­ple killed, many trapped in their cars as they tried to flee fast-mov­ing for­est fire


PE­DRO­GAO GRANDE, POR­TU­GAL— A rag­ing for­est fire in cen­tral Por­tu­gal killed at least 62 peo­ple as they des­per­ately tried to flee, char­ring cars and trucks as it swept over roads. The dis­as­ter — the worst tragedy Por­tu­gal has ex­pe­ri­enced in decades — shook the na­tion, with the pres­i­dent declar­ing that the coun­try’s pain “knows no end.”

Al­most 24 hours af­ter the deaths Satur­day night, fires were still churn­ing across the forested hill­sides of cen­tral Por­tu­gal. Po­lice and fire­fight­ers were search­ing charred ar­eas of the for­est and iso­lated homes, look­ing for more bod­ies.

“It is a time of pain but also . . . a time to carry on the fight” against the flames, Pres­i­dent Marcelo Re­belo de Sousa told the na­tion in a tele­vised ad­dress Sun­day evening af­ter the gov­ern­ment de­clared three days of na­tional mourn­ing.

A huge wall of thick smoke and bright red flames tow­ered over the tops of trees in the forested Pe­dro­gao Grande area, 150 kilo­me­tres north­east of Lis­bon, where a light­ning strike was be­lieved to have sparked the blaze Satur­day. In­ves­ti­ga­tors found a tree that was hit dur­ing a “dry thun­der­storm,” the head of the na­tional ju­di­cial po­lice said.

Dry thun­der­storms are fre­quent when high tem­per­a­tures cause fall­ing wa­ter to evap­o­rate be­fore reach­ing the ground.

Por­tu­gal is prone to for­est fires in the dry sum­mer months, and tem­per­a­tures as high as 40 C hit the af­fected area in re­cent days.

At least four other sig­nif­i­cant wild­fires were burn­ing Sun­day else­where in Por­tu­gal, 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 as he ar­rived at the scene Sun­day.

“Some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary has taken place and we have to wait for ex­perts to prop­erly de­ter­mine its causes.”

In­te­rior Min­is­ter Con­stanca Ur­bano de Sousa said the death toll had risen to 62 by the end of Sun­day. She said the coun­try’s ju­di­cial po­lice were ex­pect­ing to com­plete the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the bod­ies soon in or­der to re­lease them as early as pos­si­ble.

In­te­rior Ministry of­fi­cial Jorge Gomes said fire­fight­ing crews were hav­ing dif­fi­culty 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.

More than 350 sol­diers on Sun­day joined the 700 fire­fight­ers who have been strug­gling to put out the blaze, schools in the area were closed un­til fur­ther no­tice and out­door fires were banned.

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.

Is­abel Bran­dao told The As­so­ci­ated Press on Sun­day that she had feared for her life when she saw the Pe­dro­gao Grande blaze.

“Yes­ter­day, we saw the fire but thought it was very far. I never thought it would come to this side,” she said. “At 3:30 a.m., my mother-in­law woke me up quickly and we never went to sleep again.” Oth­ers 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.”

Broad­caster RTP showed ter­ri­fy­ing im­ages of sev­eral peo­ple on a road try­ing to es­cape the in­tense smoke that had re­duced vis­i­bil­ity to a few me­ters. A young man shared a bot­tle of wa­ter with a dis­traught woman as she stum­bled down the road.

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 ac­ci­dent re­lated to the fire and in­for­ma­tion was miss­ing on the other deaths.

Gomes said 54 peo­ple were also in­jured in the fire, 5 of them se­ri­ously, in­clud­ing four fire­fight­ers and a child.

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.”

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


A light­ning strike was be­lieved to be the cause of wild­fires that left scores dead in cen­tral Por­tu­gal.


The wild­fire, re­flected in a stream at Penela, Coim­bra, in cen­tral Por­tu­gal, had killed at least 62 peo­ple, many of them burned to death in their cars.


Fire­fight­ers work to stop the for­est fire from reach­ing the vil­lage of Ave­lar.


Two peo­ple cover their mouths and noses as smoke de­scends.


Peo­ple are evac­u­ated from their houses by Red Cross and po­lice mem­bers due the prox­im­ity of a dan­ger­ous wild­fire at Tor­gal, Cas­tan­heira de Pera.

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