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Portugal forest fire victims die in their cars as flames engulf road

19 June 2017, 12:44 | Guillermo Sutton

Portugal forest fire victims die in their cars as flames engulf road

Firefighters of the Portuguese National Republican Guard work to stop a forest fire from reaching the village of Avelar central Portugal at sunrise Sunday June 18 2017. A number of people have been killed in forest fires in central Portugal many of

In August of past year, the island of Madeira was devastated by a fire that killed three people and more than a thousand had to be evacuated from their homes.

The blaze on Saturday hit the mountainous area of Pedrogao Grande, 200 km southeast of Lisbon, amid an intense heat wave and strong winds that fanned the fire later in the day.

Interior Ministry official Jorge Gomes said Sunday that at least 30 people died inside their cars as they tried to flee.

Gomes said that at least 30 people were killed when their vehicles were engulfed by flames on a road between the towns of Figueiro dos Vinhos and Castanheira de Pera, and three others died from smoke inhalation in Figueiro dos Vinhos.

He said the death toll was lowered from the previously reported 62 victims because one person had been counted twice.

Gomes told reporters that among the dead, two of them are victims of a road accident, while four of the injured are in serious condition. Portugal was sweltering under a severe heatwave on June 17, with temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius in several regions.

Authorities have declared three days of mourning starting on Sunday.

More than 350 soldiers were joining Sunday the 700 firefighters who were struggling to put out the blaze since Saturday, the government said.

Nearly 24 hours after the deaths Saturday night, fires were still churning across the forested hillsides of central Portugal.

French President Emmanuel Macron said in a Twitter message: "Solidarity with Portugal, hit by awful fires".

Juncker wrote in the letter that "Our thoughts are with all the victims, their families and all the courageous soldiers of peace that in a very hard terrain and under challenging circumstances continue to fight this awful fire".

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Hundreds of firefighters were still battling the flames on Sunday.

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

Spain has lent its neighbour two water-bombing planes while the European Union has activated its civil protection efforts.

The EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides expressed his condolences for the victims in a statement, saying the "EU is fully ready to help".

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy tweeted that he is "overwhelmed by the tragedy at Pedrogao Grande". President Marcelo Rebelo went to the Leiria region to meet families of the victims, "sharing their pain in the name of all the Portuguese people", he said.

"The smoke cloud is very low, which does not allow helicopters and fire planes to work efficiently. but we're doing everything possible and impossible to put out this fire", Gomes said, adding that no villages were now at risk. He says 17 others died right outside their cars or by the road, 11 people died in the forest and two people died in a auto accident related to the fire and information was missing on the other deaths.

Raging forest fires in Portugal have killed at least 62 people, most of whom burnt to death in their cars, the government said Sunday, in one of the worst such disasters in recent history.

Avelar resident Isabel Brandao has told The Associated Press that "the problem is that there was no rain". Police say lightning striking a tree may have caused the fire. But Prime Minister Antonio Costa said high temperatures of 40 C (104 F) in recent days may have played a part.

The forest fire deaths were the biggest in memory in Portugal, which saw 25 Portuguese soldiers die fighting wildfires in 1966.

Six firefighters are among those injured. The rest of the bodies were found outside of the cars or in the forest, the official said.



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