Burned cars are seen on a local road during a forest fire near Pedrogao Grande, Portugal, on Sunday. Picture: REUTERS
Burned cars are seen on a local road during a forest fire near Pedrogao Grande, Portugal, on Sunday. Picture: REUTERS

Lisbon — A huge forest fire raging since Saturday in central Portugal has killed at least 61 people in what is possibly the country’s deadliest forest blaze, says the government.

"The dimension of this fire was such that we don’t have memory of such a human tragedy," Prime Minister Antonio Costa said as he arrived in Pedrogao Grande, a mountainous area about 200km northeast of Lisbon.

He said it was vital to focus on the prevention of new fires amid a continuing heatwave, strong winds and lack of rain. He also warned that the death toll could increase.

The government has declared three days of mourning and sent two army battalions to help the emergency services. The EU said it would provide firefighting aircraft.

France has offered three planes and Spain has sent two, authorities said.

Speaking in the Vatican, Pope Francis, who visited Portugal in May, mentioned the victims in his weekly address: "I am close to the dear people of Portugal, hit by a devastating fire which is raging in the forests around Pedrogao Grande, causing many victims and injuries. Let us pray in silence."

French President Emmanuel Macron said in a Twitter message: "Solidarity with Portugal, hit by terrible fires. Our thoughts are with victims. France makes its aid available to Portugal."

The European Commission’s aid chief, Christos Stylianides, said "all will be done to assist the authorities and people of Portugal at this time of need".

The death toll released by Jorge Gomes, the secretary of state for internal affairs, has gradually climbed from the 19 initially announced late on Saturday. Gomes said most of the victims were caught in their vehicles on roads.

In the village of Nodeirinho, where 11 residents have died, state television RTP showed burnt-out cars and blackened houses. Shocked residents spoke of a whole family that
was trying to flee their home in a car but got caught in "a tornado of flames".

"It does not seem real, it is out of this world.... It is an authentic inferno, we have never seen anything like that," Pedrogao Grande mayor Valdemar Alves told reporters.

More than 20 villages have been affected.

About 54 injured people — four in a serious condition — have been taken to hospitals.

On Saturday the blaze hit the mountainous area amid an intense heatwave and rainless thunderstorms. Police said a lightning strike had probably caused the fire.

Hundreds of firefighters were still battling the flames on Sunday. Various local highways were shut for safety reasons.

"The smoke cloud is very low, which does not allow helicopters and fire planes to work efficiently ... but we’re doing everything possible and impossible to put out this fire," Gomes said, adding that no villages were at risk.

President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa visited the site of the tragedy on Saturday night and 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.

However, various residents said they had been left to their own devices and had seen no firefighters for hours while their homes burned.

Others complained about poor forestry reserve planning and the depopulation of remote villages, which had  left many wooded areas unattended.

Reuters

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