No further information immediately available.
Published Thursday, June 22, 2017
A raging forest fire in central Portugal this weekend killed more than 60 people, including at least 30 motorists who were trapped in their cars when the flames enveloped a stretch of road.
The fire, which was still burning on Sunday afternoon, has brought "a dimension of human tragedy that we cannot remember," Prime Minister Antonio Costa said during a visit to the scorched area around Pedrogao Grande.
The initial deadly blaze started on Saturday, and the flames spread along four fronts with "great violence", said Jorge Gomes, the secretary of state for internal administration. By Sunday afternoon, five infernos were raging in central Portugal, he said.
The death toll stood at 61, according to Lusa, the national news agency. Officials said they expected the toll to rise.
Half of the people killed died in their cars, Mr. Gomes confirmed, after being hemmed in by the flames while driving along a road through the densely forested area between Figueiro dos Vinhos and Castanheira de Pera.
Officials said they had found 17 bodies near the road, possibly those of people who had tried to escape on foot once they realized there was no way to continue driving. Two people were also killed in a car crash related to the fire.
Several houses were destroyed by the flames. Portuguese television showed people scrambling to leave their homes in the early hours of Sunday morning, escorted by firefighters and other rescue teams, as huge flames engulfed hamlets across the dry, cracked terrain.
Several roads were cut off by flames and thick smoke as firefighters tried to prevent the fires from spreading.
About 1,600 firefighters, assisted by airplanes and helicopters, were working to contain the damage. The police and military units were called in to help, and European Union officials in Brussels activated the bloc's civil protection mechanism to send reinforcements. Spain sent two planes to help contain the fires.
An investigation into the cause of the fires is likely to look into why motorists were left stranded on the road, and whether the authorities cut off all of the access roads quickly enough to prevent drivers from inadvertently heading toward the blaze.
The cause of the initial fire near Pedrogao Grande was not immediately clear. Officials had suggested that it was started by lightning during a dry thunderstorm, in which lightning strikes but there is no rain.
Jose Maria de Almeida Rodrigues, the national director of Portugal's judicial police, told Lusa on Sunday, "Everything points very clearly toward natural causes."
Portugal, where summer wildfires are common, has been experiencing a heat wave for several days, with temperatures climbing above 40 degrees Celsius.
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Alert Level: Red
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