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Dozens killed in Portugal forest fire

June 19, 2017

A wildfire has engulfed large parts of central Portugal, leaving death and destruction in its wake. Germany, France and Spain have offered assistance to tackle the deadly natural disaster.

Portugal Waldbrände
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Kneffel

Dozens of people have been killed in central Portugal after a forest fire broke out on Saturday and swept across a roadway near the area of Pedrogao Grande, 200 kilometers (124 miles) south of Lisbon.

Portugal declared three days of national mourning as the death toll climbed to 64. Prime Minister Antonio Costa warned that the number of victims could rise.

"It is the greatest tragedy of human lives that we've witnessed in Portugal in years," Costa said. "The priority now is to get the ongoing fire under control - after that, we must understand what happened."

Read more: How climate change is increasing forest fires around the world

More than 2,000 firefighters and 200 fire engines continue working to control the blaze. German Chancellor Angela Merkel offered to provide assistance in order to curb the fallout from the natural disaster. 

The French government confirmed it had sent three planes to Portugal to tackle the fire, while Spain sent water-bombing planes on Sunday morning to aid the Portuguese firefighters on the ground.

firefighters carry a hose in the woods of Portugal as a fire burns in the background
Thousands of firefighters struggle to get the blazes under controlImage: picture.alliance/dpa/A.Franca

'Great violence'

Police chief Almeida Rodrigues said dry thunderstorms started the blaze, adding a tree had been struck by lightning. Most of the people who were killed died trying to escape their vehicles when the flames unexpectedly whipped across the road, according to Interior Ministry official Jorge Gomes.

The fire spread "with great violence," moving out on four fronts, Gomes added.

"It is difficult to say if they were fleeing the flames or were taken by surprise," he said. Gomes also said that at least 59 people have been seriously injured in the fire.

A burnt-out car on a road in Portugal
It remains unclear how many people perished in the firesImage: Reuters/R. Marchante

Heatwave hits 40 degrees C

Commenting on the forest blaze, local resident Isabel Brandao told The Associated Press news agency she feared for her life.

"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-in-law woke me up quickly and we never went to sleep again. We were afraid the fire would reach us."

Portugal was in the midst of a massive heat wave on Saturday, with temperatures in some areas hovering at around 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit). Strong winds also added to the dangerous conditions.

Last year, Portugal was struck by a string of fires that damaged around 1,000 square kilometers (386 square miles) of land. In August, four people were killed in a blaze on the popular tourist island of Madeira.

Fires burning through woods in Portugal, turning the sky orange
Authorities are still investigating what started the blazesImage: Getty Images/AFP/P. De Melo Moreira

Government criticism growing

"Why?" was the headline used in Monday's edition of Portugal newspaper Publico. The paper blamed the government for poor forestry reserve planning and a lack of coordination between fire prevention services.

Quercus, the biggest environmental lobby in Portugal, also called the Portuguese government on their lack of foresight. In a statement released Monday, the organization blamed Portugal's previous government for the afforestation of very flammable Eucalyptus trees and the current government for failing to repeal it.

"Quercus urges the current Government of Portugal not to make the mistakes of previous governments and to reconstruct the forestry policy in Portugal, with a focus on the native forest and forest management," the statement read.

The World Wildlife Foundation in Portugal also released a statement Sunday saying "human negligence" and "a lack of adequate forest management" led to the disaster.

Waldbrände in Portugal Lissabon
Automobiles big and small were scorched along national route 236Image: picture alliance/dpa/P.Kneffel

Solidarity with Portugal

"All will be done to assist the authorities and people of Portugal at this time of need," Christos Stylianides, the European Commission's aid chief, said in a statement.

"Solidarity with Portugal, hit by terrible fires. Our thoughts are with victims. France makes its aid available to Portugal," French President Emmanuel Macron wrote on Twitter.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker also expressed solidarity with the Portuguese people in a Twitter message.

President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa visited the site of the tragedy during the night and later expressed his condolences.

The "situation is unfortunately atypical," he said. "It was not possible to do more than what has been done" in prevention and the immediate response.

Portugal's football team held a minute of silence for the fire victims before its Sunday's Confederations Cup match against Mexico in Russia, the country's football association confirmed.

ls/rc (AFP, Reuters, AP)