A huge forest fire raging since Saturday in central Portugal has killed at least 62 people, most of them dying in their cars as they tried to flee, the government said on Sunday, “The dimension of this fire was such that we don’t have memory of such a human tragedy,” Prime Minister Antonio Costa said in Pedrogao Grande, the mountainous region about 200 km northeast of Lisbon.
Most victims were caught in their vehicles on the road while fleeing flames that were destroying their homes.
The prime minister said the death toll could rise as firefighters inspected charred remains of some buildings in remote villages.
Police said a lightning strike on a tree probably caused the blaze on Saturday in a region hit by an intense heat wave and dry, gusty winds, which has fanned the flames.
The prime minister said the emergency services acted as fast as they could but acknowledged that some of the efforts like alerting the population might have been hindered because the blaze had ruined phone lines and communications towers.
“What happened was cables and communications towers were destroyed by the fire, even their first replacements melted,” he said. “But nothing compromised the firefighting efforts.”
Most communications have been restored, but Costa called on residents listen to the radio and heed any official advice.
The government declared three days of mourning and sent two army battalions to help the emergency services.
The European Union said it would provide firefighting aircraft.
France has offered three planes and Spain has sent two, authorities said.
Speaking in the Vatican, Pope Francis, who visited Portugal last month, mentioned the victims in his weekly address.