Dozens killed in Portugal forest fire

Dozens killed in Portugal forest fire

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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.

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.

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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."

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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.

Waldbrand in Portugal Feuerwehr im Einsatz

Thousands of firefighters struggle to get the blazes under control

'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.

Portugal Waldbrände

It remains unclear how many people perished in the fires

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.

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"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.

Portugal Waldbrände

Authorities are still investigating what started the blazes

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 236

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.

Catastrophe

Worst forest fire in decades

In televised comments, Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa has described raging forest fires in central Portugal as "the greatest tragedy of human lives that we've witnessed in our country in years." He was headed to the site on Sunday. Earlier on Saturday night, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa visited the site and expressed his condolences for the dozens of fire victims.

Catastrophe

Probable cause - a lightning strike

The head of Portugal’s national judicial police said that a lightning strike on Saturday appeared to be the most probable cause of the blaze in the central Pedrogao Grande area. Investigators found a tree that was hit during a "dry thunderstorm." Such storms are frequent when falling water evaporates before reaching the ground because of high temperatures.

Catastrophe

Hundreds of firefighters involved

The Portuguese government has sent two army battalions to help the emergency services in Pedrogao Grande, which is located almost 200 kilometers (124 miles) northeast of the capital, Lisbon. Thousands of firefighters and more than 200 fire engines are busy tackling the flames. As of Monday morning, the fire was still highly active, with thousands battling it on four separate fronts.

Catastrophe

EU & member states provide assistance

The European Union, along with several member states, has come forward to provide assistance. France, Spain and Italy were to send more water-dropping planes Monday as part of the cooperation program. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also spoke to the Portuguese Prime Minister Antonia Costa and offered Germany's assistance.

Catastrophe

A moment of silence in the Vatican

Pope Francis led thousands of people in a moment of silent prayer held for the victims of fire in Portugal. He referred to it as the "devastating fire" at the end of his Sunday prayer, delivered from his studio window overlooking St. Peter's Square.

Catastrophe

Portugal - a country prone to forest fires

A woman protects herself from the smoke produced by a forest fire in Pampilhosa da Serra, Portugal. The country was hit by a series of such fires last year which devastated more than 1,000 square kilometers. Fires on the tourist island of Madeira in August killed three people. Over the whole year of 2016, around 40 homes were destroyed and 5,400 hectares (13, 344 acres) of land burned out.

ls/rc (AFP, Reuters, AP)