At least 57 people were killed in forest fires that broke out in the municipality of Pedrogao Grande in central Portugal on Saturday afternoon. Prime Minister Antonio Costa on Sunday called the forest fires "the biggest tragedy of human life that we have known in years."
Nearly 600 firefighters and 160 vehicles were dispatched late on Saturday to control the blaze in the Pedrogao Grande area even as the fire raged across several fronts engulfing vehicles on a road between the towns of Figueiro dos Vinhos and Castanheira de Pera.
Interior Ministry official Jorge Gomes was quoted by the Associated Press as saying at least 16 people died when flames engulfed their vehicles on the road while three others lost their lives due to suffocation in Figueiro dos Vinhos. Gomes said casualties occurred in the Pedrogao Grande area, situated about 150 km northeast of Lisbon.
"Yesterday we saw the fire but thought it was very far. I never thought it would come to this side. At 3:30 a.m., my mother-in-law woke me up quickly and we never went to sleep again. We were afraid the fire would reach us," local resident Isabel Brandao told AP, adding that she feared for her life.
Several people who fled their homes were put up by the locals of the Ansiao municipality. "There are people who arrived saying they didn't want to die in their homes, which were surrounded by flames," Ricardo Tristao of Ansiao told reporters.
At least 20 people, including six firefighters, got injured due to the forest fires, of which 14 are in a critical condition, AP reported citing public broadcaster RTP. Temperatures exceeded 40 degrees Celcius in several regions in the wake of a severe heatwave.
"Unfortunately this seems to be the greatest tragedy we have seen in recent years in terms of forest fires... The number of fatalities could still rise. The priority now is to save those people who could still be in danger," PM Costa said at the Civil Protection headquarters near Lisbon adding that a period of national mourning would be announced soon.
Dry thunderstorms could be the reason behind the raging fires, the PM said. He added the "intense" blaze made it difficult for firefighters to reach the area. Costa also said the authorities were working on identifying the victims of the blaze. Spain has sent a couple of water-bombing planes on Sunday morning to help the Portuguese fire service on the ground.
Costa further said several villages were affected due to the main fire and the government is yet to put an evacuation process in place. The extent of the damage has not been ascertained.
"This is a region that has had fires because of its forests, but we cannot remember a tragedy of these proportions. I am completely stunned by the number of deaths," Valdemar Alves, mayor of Pedrogao Grande, was quoted by AP as saying.
President Marcelo Rebelo went to meet families of the victims in the Leiria region to share "their pain in the name of all the Portuguese people." He said firefighters did "all they could" to control the forest fires.