PEDRSGCO GRANDE, Portugal: More than 1,000 firefighters on Monday continued to battle a giant forest fire that swept through central Portugal at the weekend, killing at least 62 people.
The country was in mourning after the deadliest such disaster in its recent history, with many victims burnt as they were trapped in their cars around the epicentre 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.
Portugal’s national Route 236 was transformed into a road of hell as the ferocious blaze ripped through the wooded countryside.
Although the searing temperatures had dropped slightly on Monday, the fire was still raging, spreading to neighbouring regions of Castelo Branco and Coimbra.
Firefighters were also continuing a grim search for bodies, with Costa warning on Sunday that the death toll could still rise.
The international community has stepped in to help, with Spain, France and Italy sending water-bombing planes. The European Union has also offered help and Greece said it could send firefighters if needed.
“I am shocked and horrified by the many lives claimed by today’s devastating fires,” said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who comes from Portugal.
“The United Nations stands ready to assist in any way possible.”
“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.
“Everything burnt very quickly given the strong winds. The flames passed within two or three kilometres of my house,” said local resident Isabel Ferreira, 62.
“It was really hell. I thought the end of the world had come,” said Maria de Fatima Nunes, a survivor.
The wooded hills in the area north of Lisbon, which 24 hours before had glowed bright green with eucalyptus and pine trees, were gutted by the flames.
A thick layer of white smoke blanketed either side of a motorway for about 20 kilometres (12 miles) on Sunday, as blackened trees leaned listlessly over charred soil.
A burnt-out car sat outside partly destroyed and abandoned houses, while a few metres away police in face masks surrounded the corpse of a man hidden under a white sheet.
Secretary of State for the Interior Jorge Gomes said 18 of those burned to death had been trapped in their cars engulfed by flames on the road between Figueiro dos Vinhos and Castanheira de Pera.
Other bodies were found in houses in isolated areas. At least three villages near Pedrogao Grande were evacuated.
Another 62 people were injured, with five in a critical state including a child and four firefighters. France’s foreign ministry said a French citizen was among those killed.
At a retirement home in Pedrogao Grande on Monday, about 150 people who had been evacuated or fled were waiting to learn when they could go home.
Boxes of donated food and drinks were outside the makeshift refuge, the air still reeking of smoke.
“We have people here who are waiting for news of their loved ones, who want to know and are really anxious,” said Soledade Lourenco, 51, a nurse volunteering at the centre.
Armindo Antonio, 67, a retiree who lives in Lisbon but has a home in nearby Louriceira, was sitting outside with a mask hanging around his neck.
“Some people stayed. Now we’re waiting to see. From what they say, the village is still closed,” he said.
“We’ve heard everything burnt around our house but the house is ok. But we don’t really know if that information is right. We just have to wait.”
Portugal sweltered under a severe heatwave over the weekend, with temperatures topping 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in several regions.
About 35 forest fires continued to burn across the country on Monday, with more than 2,000 firefighters and 660 vehicles mobilised.
Portugal was hit by a series of fires last year which devastated more than 100,000 hectares (1,000 sq km) 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.