PEDRÓGÃO GRANDE: More than 1,000 firefighters on Monday battled 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 Portugal’s recent history, with many victims burnt as they were trapped in their cars.

“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 around the epicentre in Pedrogao Grande.

Although the searing temperatures in Portugal had dropped slightly on Monday, the fire was still raging, spreading to neighbouring regions of Castelo Branco and Coimbra.

Firefighters were continuing a grim search for bodies, with Costa warning on Sunday that the death toll could still rise.

Police chief Almeida Rodrigues blamed dry thunderstorms for the blaze which broke out on Saturday in Pedrogao Grande, saying a tree had been struck by lightning.

“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.

“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.”

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 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.

Luisilda Malheiro and her husband Eduardo Abreu, a couple of farmers, both 62, escaped the hellish route N-236.

“We escaped in time, me on the tractor and he with our van,” Luisilda said.

“Our house is still there but we lost everything else: the chickens, the rabbits and the ducks. We were only able to save two goats,” she said.

The international community stepped in to help, with the European Union and neighbouring Spain offering water-bombing planes

“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,” he said.

Portugal was sweltering 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.

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.

President Marcelo Rebelo went to the Leiria region to meet victims’ families, saying he was “sharing their pain in the name of all the Portuguese people.”

Portugal was hit by a series of fires last year which devastated more than 100,000 hectares (1,000 square kilometres) 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.--AFP

84 reads
A picture taken on June 18, 2017 shows flames and smoke during a wildfire near the village of Mega Fundeira. AFP
Flames rise next to a church during a fire in Pampilhosa da Serra, central of Portugal. EPA