Lisbon: Portugal on Monday struggled to control the deadliest wildfire in its history that has devastated the central region of Leiria, with officials putting the death toll at 62. The fire, which began on Saturday afternoon, ignited in the municipality of Pedrogao Grande in Leiria, a huge plain with small villages crisscrossed by several national roads.
“The dimension of this fire was such that we don’t have memory of such a human tragedy,” said Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa. Costa warned the death toll could increase, adding there were currently more than 700 emergency staff deployed to tackle the blaze along with air support from Spain and France. The number of injured is more than 60.
The forest fire broke out on a road linking the municipalities of Figueiro dos Vinhos and Castanheira de Pera, causing people to be trapped on a road surrounded by flames.
According to the Internal Administration department, 30 people were reported to have died in their vehicles on this road, including entire families. Another 17 bodies were found along the side of other roads while 10 more were recovered in the rural areas surrounding these roads. Among those injured, four are in serious condition and damages to several homes nearby were reported.
The Judicial Police told Efe that the police had ruled out arson and pointed to lightning striking a tree as the most likely cause of the deadly fire. Strong winds together with temperatures above 40 degrees on Saturday caused the fire to spread rapidly, hindering the work of firefighters. The fire remains active in four areas, two of them are considered out of control, according to the department.
The government has sent some 400 personnel from social services to attend to the affected people and ordered an emergency evacuation of people residing in nearby areas. In addition, the search and identification of possible victims are on village by village. All available means of assistance have been mobilized towards Leiria, including four fire fighting aircraft sent from Spain. The Portuguese government has declared three days of national mourning starting on Sunday.