Portugal in Mourning After Raging Forest Fire Kills Scores

Updated on
  • Many victims died in their cars as they tried to flee
  • Firefighters working to contain blaze amid high temperatures

Portugal declared three days of national mourning on Sunday after a forest fire triggered by thunderstorms in the north of the country killed more than 60 people, many of them fleeing in their cars.

At least 30 people died in vehicles, with more bodies found near cars on the side of a road and others in rural areas near Pedrogao Grande, Secretary of State for Internal Administration Jorge Gomes said in comments broadcast Sunday by RTP. According to an initial analysis by the Judicial Police, the fire was caused by a dry thunderstorm, Gomes said. Government officials said an assessment will be made of the cause.

“So many deaths represent an almost unprecedented tragedy in the history of democratic Portugal,’’ President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa said in a televised speech on Sunday night.

A firefighter rests from fighting the fires on June 18.

Photographer: Patricia De Melo/AFP via Getty Images

More than 800 firefighters were still working on Sunday to contain the blaze, which erupted Saturday hand spread amid temperatures that approached 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). Smoke has hampered airborne efforts, Gomes said. The European Commission said on Sunday that France and Spain have sent firefighting aircraft.

President Rebelo de Sousa went to the scene, about 175 kilometers (110 miles) northeast of Lisbon, after midnight and said there was no lack of immediate response to face the blaze. Minister of Internal Administration Constanca Urbano de Sousa, also in Pedrogao, said that “when this ends” an assessment will be made about what happened, according to RTP.

“It’s the greatest tragedy of human lives that we’ve seen with forest fires in Portugal in the last few years,” Prime Minister Antonio Costa said overnight in comments broadcast by television channel SIC Noticias. There were 156 fires on Saturday, he said. His Socialist Party canceled all activities.

Pedro Passos Coelho, a former premier and leader of the opposition Social Democrats, suspended his political agenda.

The government set up centers near the scene to help people who lost their homes and some nearby schools will remain closed for now, Costa said in Pedrogao Grande on Sunday in comments broadcast by RTP. Some villages were evacuated as the fire remains active, he said. There has been no failure in communications, the premier said.

Gomes urged people to stay away from the scene. “This tragedy also happened because of curiosity,’’ he said.

(Updates with president’s comments in third paragraph.)
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