64 killed in Portugal forest fires

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MORE THAN 1,000 firefighters finally extinguished the deadliest forest fire in Portugal’s recent history on Wednesday, though blazes persisted in nearby central and other areas of the country.

The main fire, which erupted last Saturday and spread with breath-taking speed, killed 64 people as they tried to flee in cars or were engulfed in flames in remote villages in a hilly region about 200 kilometres northeast of Lisbon.

More than 150 people have been injured.

Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa visited the affected area in Pedrogao Grande, the mountainous region about 200 kilometres northeast of Lisbon last Sunday, calling it the ‘biggest human tragedy in Portugal in living memory’.

Police said a lightning strike on a tree probably caused the blaze on Saturday in a region hit by an intense heat wave and dry, gusty winds, which fanned the flames.

But investigators said on Wednesday they would question the head of the country’s volunteer firefighters, Jaime Marta Soares, who has said he suspects the fire had ‘criminal origins.’

The prime minister said the emergency services acted as fast as they could but acknowledged that efforts to alert the population might have been hindered because the blaze had ruined phone lines and communications towers.

‘What happened was cables and communications towers were destroyed by the fire, even their first replacements melted,’ he said. ‘But nothing compromised the firefighting efforts.’

The government declared three days of mourning and sent two army battalions to help the emergency services. The European Union said it would provide firefighting aircraft. France has offered three planes and Spain has sent two, authorities said.

Speaking in the Vatican, Pope Francis, who visited Portugal last month, mentioned the victims in his weekly address.

‘I am close to the dear people of Portugal, hit by a devastating fire which is raging in the forests around Pedrogao Grande, causing many victims and injuries. Let us pray in silence,’ he said.

French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted: ‘Solidarity with Portugal, hit by terrible fires. Our thoughts are with victims. France makes its aid available to Portugal’.

President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa visited the site at night and expressed his condolences. He said that ‘it was not possible to do more than what has been done’ in prevention and responding to the fire.

Some local residents said they had been left without firefighters for hours as their homes burnt. Many blamed poor forestry reserve planning and depopulation of remote villages that left many wooded areas untended.

According to data from the European Forest Fire Information System, more than 40,000 hectares of Portugese forest has burnt, far more than the average of just under 10,000 hectares burnt by this time of the year during 2008-16.

With weather forecasters predicting an unusually hot summer, authorities are concerned that there could be many more blazes during July and August when typically the biggest fires strike.

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