Dozens killed as forest fire kills 62 in Portugal
June 18, 2017 | 3:46 pm| | | Start Conversation
A forest fire that engulfed villages in central Portugal has killed 62 people, trapping most of the victims in their cars, a government official said on Sunday.
Jorge Gomes, secretary of state for home affairs, said 57 people had been injured, five of them seriously, in the country’s worst forest fire disaster on record.
Thirty of the fatal victims were trapped in their cars as the blaze spread on several fronts near the town of Pedrógão Grande, about 200 kms north-east of Lisbon, he said. Another 17 had died on the roadside, many of them victims of smoke inhalation, and 10 in rural areas, he said.
More than 600 firefighters continued to combat the fire on Sunday amid a heatwave that has seen temperatures in several parts of Portugal reach 40 degrees centigrade. No inhabited areas were still in danger but the fire continued to burn on four fronts, Mr Gomes said.
The head of Portugal’s judiciary police said the cause of the fire had been identified as a dry thunderstorm. “We have found the tree that was hit by lighting,” José Maria Almeida Rodrigues told reporters. “Everything indicates that the fire was started by natural causes.”
Soldiers and additional firefighting planes from Spain and France were drafted in to help fight the blaze, said Constança Urbana de Sousa, home affairs minister.
The fire started early on Saturday afternoon, spreading out of control and destroying several fire engines, officials said.
“We are trying to evacuate villages that are surrounded by flames and in great danger,” Valdemar Alves, the mayor of Pedrógão Grande, told the Lusa news agency late on Saturday. “The fire came within 50m of the town.”
Videos and photographs from the scene showed forested hillsides consumed by flames, farmhouses on fire and firefighters struggling against strong winds to contain the blaze.
Residents of several villages fled their homes and were being cared for in local schools and community centres.
President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, who travelled to the scene early on Sunday, praised those combating the blaze as “true heroes”. In a rare combination of high temperatures, strong winds and zero humidity, “it was not possible to do more”, he said.
António Costa, prime minister, speaking earlier at the headquarters of Portugal’s civil protection services, also said the fire appeared to be connected with dry thunderstorms and warned that the same phenomenon could reoccur on Sunday.
Lightning from dry thunderstorms, in which rain evaporates before reaching the ground, is a common cause of wildfires and can cause strong surface winds that fan flames.
The country’s meteorological office warned that four regions were in a situation of “extreme risk” from high temperatures on Sunday.
About 60 forest fires broke out across Portugal over the weekend, with more than 1,600 firefighters battling them.
The country is regularly hit by forest fires in summer. In the worst previous such disaster on record, 25 soldiers were killed near Sintra outside Lisbon in 1966.
Big Read |