A wildfire has swept across a highway in central Portugal, killing dozens, with many of the victims trapped in their cars. The government has declared three days of national mourning as the death toll climbed to 62.
Global warming is increasing forest fire risk in the Alps
EU sends firefighting planes to Madeira
Dozens of people were killed in central Portugal on Saturday after a forest fire swept across a roadway near the area of Pedrogao Grande, 200 kilometers (124 miles) south of Lisbon. Prime Minister Antonio Costa warned that the number of victims could rise.
Portugal declared three days of national mourning as the death toll climbed to 62.
“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.”
Some 700 firefighters and more than 200 fire engines are trying to control the blaze. The French government confirmed it had sent three planes to Portugal to tackle the fire.
Spain sent water-bombing planes on Sunday morning to aid the Portuguese firefighters on the ground.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to Prime Minister Costa on the phone and offered assistance to deal with the catastrophe.
It is unclear what actually started the blaze. 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 hurt in the fire.
The death toll has been climbing up through the morning.
Heatwave hits 40 degrees C
Commenting on the forest blaze, local resident Isabel Brandao told the Associated Press news agency she had 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.
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 will hold 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.
shs, es,dj/sms (AFP, Reuters)