Lisbon, June 18: An out-of-control forest fire in central Portugal has killed at least 58 people and injured 54, according to updated figures provided on Sunday by the government.
Secretary of State for Internal Administration Joao Gomes reported that the number of deaths had risen as a result of the devastating wildfires that erupted on Saturday in the vicinity of Pedrogao Grande, a small rural town near the city of Coimbra, reports Efe news.
“The latest victim was found in the countryside,” said Gomes, who was tasked with delivering the latest information available to authorities on the site, located some 190 km to the northeast of Lisbon.
Gomes said at least 30 victims, including entire families, were found dead in their vehicles on two roads in the Leiria district that were blocked by the flames’ advance, trapping motorists in the inferno.
Another 17 bodies were found next to the roads and 10 were recovered from the rural areas surrounding them.
Gomes said eight firefighters were among the injured – four in serious condition.
Meanwhile, teams of psychologists have been deployed to attend to survivors, who were reportedly “in shock” and in many cases had lost relatives in the tragedy.
The wildfire was still active on four separate fronts and had cut off several roads to Pedrogao Grande, added Gomes.
In addition to the Portuguese rescue teams that arrived from the cities of Coimbra, Setubal and Lisbon, two Spanish aircraft were aiding extinction efforts while the arrival of French support was also expected.
The flames spread during Saturday afternoon in a way that “has no explanation”, Gomes said, after strong winds turned a low-scale fire into an uncontrollable wildfire.
“Unfortunately, this seems to be the greatest tragedy we have seen in recent years in terms of forest fires,” said Prime Minister Antonio Costa.
Sources from Portugal’s Judicial Police told EFE that the likely cause of the fire was a bolt of lightning that struck a dry tree in the heavily-forested area.
High temperatures and a lack of rainfall were major factors that allowed the flames to spread very quickly, trapping many of the people attempting to flee Pedrogao by car.