'Portugal weeps' as deadly forest fire still rages

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A picture taken on June 18, 2017 shows flames and smoke during a wildfire near the village of Mega Fundeira.
Portugal declared three days of national mourning from June 18, 2017 after the most deadly forest fire in its recent history, raging through the centre of the country. The fire, which broke out June 17, 2017 in the Pedrogao Grande district, had killed at least 62 people and injured more than 50, according to the latest official update by Sunday afternoon. / AFP PHOTO / MIGUEL RIOPA

More than 1,000 firefighters on Monday battled a giant forest fire that swept through central Portugal at the weekend, killing at least 62 people.

The country was in mourning after the deadliest such disaster in its recent history, with many victims burnt as they were trapped in their cars around the epicentre in Pedrogao Grande.

“Portugal weeps for Pedrogao Grande,” said the I newspaper while mainstream Publico’s headline simply read “Why?”

“The fire has reached a level of human tragedy that we have never seen before,” said a visibly moved Prime Minister Antonio Costa, who announced three days of mourning from Sunday.

Portugal’s national route 236 was transformed into a road of hell as the ferocious blaze ripped through the wooded countryside.

Although the searing temperatures had dropped slightly on Monday, the fire was still raging, spreading to neighbouring regions of Castelo Branco and Coimbra.

Firefighters were continuing a grim search for bodies, with Costa warning on Sunday that the death toll could still rise.

“Our pain is immense,” said Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa. “We feel a sense of injustice because the tragedy has hit those Portuguese of whom one speaks little — those living in an isolated rural zone.”

‘Everything burnt very quickly’
Police chief Almeida Rodrigues blamed dry thunderstorms for the blaze which broke out on Saturday in Pedrogao Grande, saying a tree had been struck by lightning.

“Everything burnt very quickly given the strong winds. The flames passed within two or three kilometres of my house,” said local resident Isabel Ferreira, 62.

“It was really hell. I thought the end of the world had come,” said Maria de Fatima Nunes, a survivor.

The wooded hills in the area north of Lisbon, which 24 hours before had glowed bright green with eucalyptus and pine trees, was gutted by the flames.

A thick layer of white smoke blanketed either side of a motorway for about 20 kilometres (12 miles) on Sunday, as blackened trees leaned listlessly over charred soil.

A burnt-out car sat outside partly destroyed and abandoned houses, while a few metres away police in face masks surrounded the corpse of a man hidden under a white sheet.

‘We lost everything’
Secretary of State for the Interior Jorge Gomes said 18 of those burned to death had been trapped in their cars engulfed by flames on the road between Figueiro dos Vinhos and Castanheira de Pera.

Other bodies were found in houses in isolated areas. At least three villages near Pedrogao Grande were evacuated.

Another 62 people were injured, with five in a critical state including a child and four firefighters.

Farmers Luisilda Malheiro and her husband Eduardo Abreu, both 62, managed to flee the ravaged N-236.

“We escaped in time, me on the tractor and he with our van,” Luisilda said.

“Our house is still there but we lost everything else: the chickens, the rabbits and the ducks. We were only able to save two goats,” she said.

But farmer Fernando Pais stayed at home with his wife and son in Trespostos, a hamlet in the area.

“If I leave my house, everything will burn down because there is no one to help us,” he said. The family has been using a hosepipe to keep the flames at bay.

The international community stepped in to help, with neighbouring Spain as well as France sending water-bombing planes. The European Union has also offered help and Greece said it could send firefighters if needed.

“I am shocked and horrified by the many lives claimed by today’s devastating fires,” said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who comes from Portugal.

“The United Nations stands ready to assist in any way possible.”

Portugal sweltered under a severe heatwave over the weekend, with temperatures topping 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in several regions.

About 35 forest fires continued to burn across the country on Monday, with more than 2,000 firefighters and 660 vehicles mobilised.

Portugal was hit by a series of fires last year which devastated more than 100,000 hectares (1,000 square kilometres) of the mainland.

Fires on the tourist island of Madeira in August killed three people, while across 2016 around 40 homes were destroyed and 5,400 hectares of land burned.

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