Portugal in mourning as battle continues to control fires

Death toll rises to 63, with many trapped in their homes or killed trying to flee in cars

A burned car stands on the side of the road  near Castanheira de Pera, in Leiria district, Portugal.  Photograph:   Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

A burned car stands on the side of the road near Castanheira de Pera, in Leiria district, Portugal. Photograph: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

 

Firefighters were still battling to control a series of forest blazes in central Portugal on Monday, as the country sought to come to terms with a death toll caused by the fires that had risen to 63.

About 2,200 firefighters had been deployed to battle six fires in the country’s interior, the largest of which was in and around the small town of Pedrógão Grande, in the mountainous Leiria province. Spain and France sent aircraft and personnel to help end the worst forest fire in living memory for Portugal.

President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa paid tribute to a fireman who died in hospital on Monday and described the challenge as “a moment of combat, in which, bit by bit, we are managing to control the various fronts”.

A total of 135 people were hurt in the fires and three days of national mourning were declared.

‘Worrying’

There was some rainfall in central Portugal on Monday, but the authorities still described the situation as “worrying”.

Although the state prosecutor intends to open a criminal investigation due to the huge loss of life, the authorities believe the fire started after lightning struck a tree.

The cars were crashing into each other as they tried to escape

Pedrógão Grande saw harrowing scenes on Saturday and Sunday as many people were trapped by flames in or near their homes, while many others died in their cars as they attempted to flee.

Firefighters work to put out a forest fire near the village of Fato, central Portugal, on Sunday. Photograph: Rafael Marchante/Reuters
Firefighters work to put out a forest fire near the village of Fato, central Portugal, on Sunday. Photograph: Rafael Marchante/Reuters

“I thought I wasn’t going to get out of there,” Maria de Fátima Nunes, who escaped the blaze by car and then by foot with her husband, told SIC television. “The flames were burning our hair and clothes.”

“The cars were crashing into each other as they tried to escape,” she said, explaining that she spoke to a woman who was in one of the vehicles. “I shouted at the woman to get out of the car, but she didn’t get out. Her husband got out but he died right there.”

A total of 30 victims were found inside cars. Among them were reportedly a four-year-old boy who had been fleeing with his uncle; also, a four-year-old girl with her mother and grandmother.

Drone footage

Local media dubbed the highway between the towns of Figueiró and Castanheira, on which many had perished, “the saddest road in Portugal” as drone footage showed burned cars strewn along it, covered in ash and with blackened trees either side.

We crouched on the floor for a good hour, trying to breathe, praying, crying

But there were also tales of solidarity. Maria do Céu Silva saved herself and 11 others, including a 95-year-old disabled woman, by taking refuge in a water tank in her house in Nodeirinho.

Military personnel arrive at the village of Vila Facaia to help recovery efforts in the aftermath of the forest fires, in Pedrógão Grande, Portugal. Photograph: Paulo Novais/EPA
Military personnel arrive at the village of Vila Facaia to help recovery efforts in the aftermath of the forest fires, in Pedrógão Grande, Portugal. Photograph: Paulo Novais/EPA

Gareth Roberts (36), a British man who lives in Portugal, told the BBC of how he was trapped by the flames. He sent a text message telling his parents he expected to die, before local people in the village of Mó Grande took him into a nearby house.

“We crouched on the floor for a good hour, trying to breathe, praying, crying,” he said, after emerging unhurt.

Food donations

People have been donating food and money to help those affected. Soccer coach André Villas-Boas was reported to have given €100,000, and the Aga Khan €500,000. The government asked for food donations to stop, as it was having difficulties transporting the large quantities already given to places in need. 

However, questions have been asked about why Portugal was not better prepared for the blaze, given that it has a history of summer forest fires. Last year a fire devastated a large area of Madeira, prompting calls for resources to be improved.

“We are condemned by history to co-exist with fire,” noted Rui Cardoso of Expresso newspaper. “So we should prepare ourselves the same way that the Japanese prepare on a day-to-day basis for earthquakes.”