A massive forest fire in central Portugal has spread to the streets, causing major fatalities in its wake. Portugal’s prime minister António Costa has called this fire “the biggest tragedy” that this European nation has faced in decades. Costa declares three days of national mourning.
At least 61 people have perished in the flames. A lightning spark is believed to have started the fire on Saturday. Huge clouds of smoke and red flames enveloped the forested Pedrogao Grande area some 150 kilometers (95 miles) northeast of the capital city Lisbon. The head of the national judicial police told Portuguese media that investigators have discovered the tree that was hit during the “dry thunderstorm.”
“The dimensions of this fire have caused a human tragedy beyond any in our memory,” Prime Minister Antonio Costa told reporters as he arrived on the scene Sunday. “Something extraordinary has taken place and we have to wait for technicians to properly determine its causes.”
More than 350 soldiers joined the ranks with 700 firefighters on Sunday to help put out the flames. Authorities believe that the recent high temperature in the region may have caused the fire. Temperatures have reached a high of 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).
Resident Isabel Brandao told The Associated Press that she was enveloped in fear when she saw the flames. “Yesterday we saw the fire but thought it was very far. I never thought it would come to this side,” she said Sunday. “At 3:30 a.m., my mother-in-law woke me up quickly and we never went to sleep again. We were afraid the fire would reach us.”
The mayor is also upset about this deadly incident. “This is a region that has had fires because of its forests, but we cannot remember a tragedy of these proportions,” said Valdemar Alves, the mayor of Pedrogao Grande. “I am completely stunned by the number of deaths.”
Interior Ministry official Jorge Gomes said that the firefighters had difficulty extinguishing the flames, which was “very intense” on at two out of the four locations where the fire spread. Gomes reported that 54 people were injured in the fire, 5 of them critically, including four firefighters and a minor.
Prime Minister Costa tweeted his “deepest regret for the victims … and a word of encouragement and strength for all who help combat this scourge.”
The European Union has stepped up to assist Portugal in this moment of hardship. Spain has sent four firefighting aircrafts to the area on Sunday. France also sent three aircraft and Greece’s prime minister had made the offer to send his country’s firefighters to the region.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy tweeted that he is “overwhelmed by the tragedy at Pedrogao Grande. The Portuguese people can count on our solidarity, support and care.”
Meanwhile, Kazan, Russia, Portugal’s national soccer team wore black arm bands in solitary with the victims of the flames. They also stood for a moment of silence with the Mexican team to show respect to the 61 people who have lost their lives.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino, attending the match in Russia, showed his support to those affected by the fire. “We want to send a big hug to everyone in Portugal for what they are going through, which is absolutely terrible. There are no words for that.”