The death toll in Portugal’s worst forest fire in history, has reached 64, even as more than 1,000 firefighters are battling to get it under control.
Many victims of the fire in central Portugal were burnt as they were trapped in their cars around the epicentre of the blaze 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.
The total number of injured in the region of the fire — which authorities said was 70 percent under control — stood at 135 since Saturday.
Portugal’s national Route 236 was transformed into “a road of hell” where 47 of the fatalities occurred as the ferocious blaze ripped through the wooded countryside.
Most of them were families who had spent the afternoon at a beach on a nearby river, local authorities said.
Although the searing temperatures had dropped slightly on Monday, the fire was still raging, spreading to neighbouring regions of Castelo Branco and Coimbra, as firefighters continued their grim search for bodies.
Local residents too have stepped in to try to stop the blaze. In the small village of Atalaia Fundeira, a big cloud of smoke billowed from a scrub of land as villagers including 76-year-old Palmira Coelho rushed out with buckets of water and a tractor arrived with a tank of water and hose.
After 10 minutes of frantic activity, the fire was largely extinguished, leaving charred ground in its wake.
“I have witnessed a lot of fires, but never like this, it’s never happened here — the way it spread, the speed,” said Betty Jesus, a 50-year-old Venezuelan who has lived in the area for decades.
In the village of Figueiro, people are still traumatised by the swift moving blaze.
“The fire didn’t spread by the ground… it spread through the air at the height of the trees… in five minutes all were on fire in an area of around 10 kilometres,” said Virgilio Godinho.
“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.”
Police chief Almeida Rodrigues blamed dry thunderstorms for the blaze which broke out on Saturday in Pedrogao Grande, ruling out arson. “We found the tree hit by the lightning,” he said.