Over 1,700 firefighters continued to battled a large-scale forest fire Monday in Portugal that has already killed 62 people. Prime Minister Antonio Costa on Sunday declared three days of national mourning. Number of fatalities feared to rise. There are also 61 people injured, five of them in critical condition - four firemen and one child.
Unfortunately, this seems to be the greatest tragedy we have seen in recent years in terms of forest fires, Costa said. The priority now is to save those people who could still be in danger, he added. He also explained that dry thunderstorms could have been the cause of the fatal blaze as he admitted that the number of fatalities could still rise, he said at the Civil Protection headquarters near Lisbon.
The fire, which began on Saturday, also injured at least 61 others in the mountainous area of Pedrogao Grande, about 150 kilometers northeast of Lisbon. Police are searching charred areas of the forest and isolated homes for more bodies.
Neighbouring Spain and France are assisting the Portuguese authorities in their efforts while the European Union is also mounting an emergency assistance campaign. Spain dispatched two water-bombing planes on Sunday morning to aid the Portuguese fire service on the ground, Costa said. Three more firefighting planes arrived from France Sunday afternoon and two Italian aircraft are expected to arrive as soon as possible, according to the European Commission.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, a former Portuguese Prime Minister himself, said he was shocked and horrified. Dozens of people who fled were taken in by residents of Ansiao.
Meanwhile, Interior Minister Jorge Gomes explained that the flames were moving with great violence, due to which it was difficult to determine whether the people who burned in their cars between the cities of Figueiro dos Vinhos and Castanheira de Pera were fleeing the flames or were taken by surprise. The fire is still raging on four fronts, said Gomes.
About 1,700 firefighters and 160 vehicles were dispatched late on Saturday to tackle about 60 forest fires, which started in the afternoon in the municipality of Pedrogao Grande before spreading fast across several fronts.
The European Union (EU) said it would provide firefighting planes following a request from Lisbon. France has offered three planes through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism and they will be quickly sent to assist the local emergency efforts, said Christos Stylianides, EU commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis management.
Portugal has been coping with a severe heatwave, with temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius in several regions.
President Marcelo Rebelo went to the Leiria region to meet families of the victims, sharing their pain in the name of all the Portuguese people, he said.
Dozens of people who fled their homes were taken in by residents of the nearby municipality of Ansiao.
The fire broke out Saturday just before 3:00 pm in the Pedrogao Grande district in the region of Leiria as temperatures rose above 40 degrees Celsius across the region. Fanned by violent winds, flames spread rapidly across the pine and Eucalyptus tree-covered hills between the villages of Pedrogao Grande, Figueiro dos Vinhos and Castanheira de Pera.
Police chief Almeida Rodrigues blamed dry thunderstorms for the blaze, ruling out arson. We found a tree hit by lighting, he said.
Over 140 forest fires continued to rage across Portugal by early Monday. Schools in the region were closed indefinitely.