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Raging forest fires kill at least 62 in Portugal


Raging forest fires in Portugal have killed at least 62 people, many of them burnt to death in their cars, the government says, in the country's worst such disaster in recent history.
The fire broke out on Saturday in the municipality of Pedrogao Grande in central Portugal, apparently caused by a lightning strike, and spread furiously in several directions.
Nearly 900 firefighters and 300 vehicles were still battling the blaze on Sunday afternoon as scenes of devastation could be seen around the town.
A firefighter using a hose tries to stop flames during a wildfire threatening the village of Torgal, Castanheira de Pera on June 18, 2017. (Photo by AFP)
"Unfortunately, this seems to be the greatest tragedy we have seen in recent years in terms of forest fires," said a visibly moved Prime Minister Antonio Costa, who declared three days of mourning starting on Sunday.
He said it was vital to focus on the prevention of new fires, amid a continuing heat wave, strong winds and lack of rain. He also warned that the death toll could still increase
The expanse of wooded hills in the area north of Lisbon, which 24 hours before had glowed bright green with eucalyptus plants and pine trees, was gutted by the flames.
A thick layer of white smoke hovered over either side of a motorway for about 20 kilometers (12 miles), as blackened trees leaned listlessly over charred soil.
A burnt-out car sat outside partly destroyed and abandoned houses, while a few meters away police in face masks surrounded the corpse of a man hidden under a white sheet.
A policeman walks on a road past burnt cars after a wildfire in Figueiro dos Vinhos on June 18, 2017. (Photo by AFP)
'Everything burnt very quickly'
Police chief Almeida Rodrigues blamed dry thunderstorms, ruling out arson and saying a tree had been struck by lightning.
"Everything burnt very quickly given the strong winds. The flames passed within two or three kilometers of my house," said local resident Isabel Ferreira, 62.
"I knew several of the victims. One of my colleagues lost her mother and her four-year-old girl as she could not get them out of the back of the car."
Secretary of State for the Interior Jorge Gomes said 62 people burned to death, mostly trapped in their cars engulfed by flames.
"It is difficult to say if they were fleeing the flames or were taken by surprise," he said.
A policeman stands near two burnt cars and the dead body of a victim of a wildfire in a forest of Figueiro dos Vinhos on June 18, 2017. (Photo by AFP)
In one village of Nodeirinho, where 11 residents have died, state television RTP showed burned out cars and blackened houses. Shocked residents spoke of a whole family that was trying to flee their home in a car but got caught in "a tornado of flames".
"It does not seem real, it is out of this world... It is an authentic inferno, we have never seen anything like that," the mayor of Pedrogao Grande Valdemar Alves told reporters. Over 20 villages have been affected.
More than 50 people were injured, five critically, including one child and four firefighters.
"The number of fatalities could still rise," Costa said. "The priority now is to save those people who could still be in danger."
A man covers her mouth and nose with a tissue during a wildfire that threatens the village houses at Torgal, Castanheira de Pera on June 18, 2017. (Photo by AFP)
'Fire raging on four fronts'
The European Union said it would provide firefighting planes from France while Spain dispatched two water-bombing aircraft.
Portugal was sweltering under a severe heatwave over the weekend, with temperatures topping 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in several regions.
About 60 forest fires broke out across the country during the night, with around 1,700 firefighters battling to put them out.
"The fire is still raging on four fronts," Gomes said, two spreading "violently".
A number of villages were affected by the main fire and homes were evacuated, their owners sheltered in neighboring areas.
People are evacuated from their houses by Red Cross and police members due the proximity of a dangerous wildfire at Torgal, Castanheira de Pera on June 18, 2017. (Photo by AFP)
Officials were not immediately able to comment on the extent of the damage.
'Didn't want to die in their homes'
Dozens of people who fled their homes were taken in by residents of the nearby municipality of Ansiao.
"There are people who arrived saying they didn't want to die in their homes, which were surrounded by flames," said Ansiao resident Ricardo Tristao.
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."
French President Emmanuel Macron said in a Twitter message: "Solidarity with Portugal, hit by terrible fires. Our thoughts are with victims. France makes its aid available to Portugal".
The European Commission's aid chief, Christos Stylianides, said in a statement that "all will be done to assist the authorities and people of Portugal at this time of need."
President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa went to the Leiria region to meet victims' families, saying he was "sharing their pain in the name of all the Portuguese people".
The "situation is unfortunately atypical ..." he said. "It was not possible to do more than what has been done" in prevention and the immediate response.
But various local residents said they had been left to their own devices and had seen no firefighters for hours while their homes burned. Others complained about poor forestry reserve planning and depopulation of remote villages, which leaves many wooded areas unattended.
A firefighter rests next to fire combat truck during a wildfire at Penela, Coimbra, central Portugal, on June 18, 2017. (Photo by AFP)
Portugal was hit by a series of fires last year which devastated more than 100,000 hectares (1,000 square kilometers) of the mainland.
Fires on the tourist island of Madeira in August killed three people, while across 2016 around 40 homes were destroyed and 5,400 hectares of land burned.
In 1966, a blaze in the forest of Sintra, west of Lisbon killed 25 soldiers trying to battle the flames.

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