by James Badcock, The Telegraph, June 19, 2017
At least 61 people have died in a wildfire still raging in central Portugal, most of them trapped in their cars by flames as treacherous wind drove the blaze beyond firefighters’ control.
The government has declared Sunday through Tuesday national days of mourning for the victims of a fire "which has caused an irreparable loss of human life."
Almost 24 hours after the deaths on Saturday night, fires were still churning across the forested hillsides of central Portugal. Police and firefighters were searching charred areas of the forest and isolated homes, looking for more bodies.
"It is a time of pain but also ... a time to carry on the fight" against the flames, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa told the nation in a televised address on Sunday evening.
There are fears for two firefighters who are missing while four of their colleagues are described as being in a serious condition in hospital.
Jorge Gomes, secretary of state for the interior, said that 16 of the casualties had been killed when their cars were engulfed by flames as they drove along a local road.
The other three deaths were from smoke inhalation, the official said, adding that 21 people were being treated for injuries.
A huge wall of thick smoke and bright red flames towered over the tops of trees in the forested Pedrogao Grande area, 95 miles northeast of Lisbon where a lightning strike was believed to have sparked the blaze on Saturday. Investigators found a tree that was hit during a "dry thunderstorm," the head of the national judicial police said.
Some roads were closed as the wildfire spread out of control, destroying several fire engines.
More than 350 soldiers on Sunday joined the 700 firefighters who have been struggling to put out the blaze, schools in the area were closed until further notice and outdoor fires were banned.
“It’s the biggest tragedy in recent years,” said Portugal’s Prime Minister António Costa. “We have to find out what happened.”
Mr de Sousa saluted the bravery of the country’s firefighters.
"These men and women deserve our support," the president said, adding that “wind and high temperatures” were making the job of controlling the fire extremely complicated.
Many parts of Spain and Portugal have been hit by a heatwave in recent days.
Isabel Brandao said on Sunday that she had feared for her life when she saw the Pedrogao Grande blaze.
"Yesterday, we saw the fire but thought it was very far. I never thought it would come to this side," she said. "At 3:30 a.m., my mother-in-law woke me up quickly and we never went to sleep again."
Others were also shocked.
"This is a region that has had fires because of its forests, but we cannot remember a tragedy of these proportions," said Valdemar Alves, the mayor of Pedrogao Grande. "I am completely stunned by the number of deaths."
The death toll so far is the largest due to a wildfire in Portugal since 1966, when 25 soldiers were killed battling a forest blaze in the forest of Sintra, near Lisbon.