By Andrei Khalip
LISBON (Reuters) -A huge forest fire raging since Saturday in central Portugal has killed at least 62 people, the government said on Sunday, in what is possibly the deadliest-ever forest blaze in the Atlantic coastal country, used to the woods burning almost every summer.
“It is the greatest tragedy of human lives that we’ve witnessed in Portugal in years,” Prime Minister Antonio Costa said in televised comments. He was headed to the site on Sunday following a visit by the president.
The government sent two army battalions to help the emergency services in the Pedrogao Grande area, some 200 km northeast of Lisbon, and the European Union said it would provide firefighting aircraft. France has offered three planes and Spain has sent two planes already, authorities said.
“All will be done to assist the authorities and people of Portugal at this time of need,” the European Commission’s aid chief, Christos Stylianides, said in a statement.
French President Emmanuel Macron said in a message published on Twitter: “Solidarity with Portugal, hit by terrible fires. Our thoughts are with victims. France makes its aid available to Portugal”.
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in a message in Portuguese, published on Twitter, that his thoughts were with the victims and praised firefighters for their bravery.
The death toll released by Jorge Gomes, the secretary of state for internal affairs, has gradually climbed from the 19 initially announced late on Saturday. Gomes said most of the victims were caught in their vehicles on the road.
In one village of Nodeirinho, where 11 residents have died, state television RTP showed burned out cars and blackened houses. Shocked residents spoke of a whole family that was trying to flee their home in a car but got caught in “a tornado of flames”.
“It does not seem real, it is out of this world... It is an authentic inferno, we have never seen anything like that,” the mayor of Pedrogao Grande Valdemar Alves told reporters. Over 20 villages have been affected.
Another 54 people have been injured and taken to hospitals, including four in serious condition.
The blaze on Saturday hit the mountainous area of Pedrogao Grande amid an intense heat wave and rainless thunderstorms. Police said a lightning striking a tree probably caused the fire.
Hundreds of firefighters were still battling the flames on Sunday. Various local motorways were shut for safety reasons.
“The smoke cloud is very low, which does not allow helicopters and fire planes to work efficiently ... but we’re doing everything possible and impossible to put out this fire,” Gomes said, adding that no villages were currently at risk.
President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa visited the site of the tragedy during the night and later expressed his condolences.
The “situation is unfortunately atypical ... “ he said. “It was not possible to do more than what has been done” in prevention and the immediate response.
Television footage showed hundreds of local residents being treated for smoke intoxication in emergency services tents set up in the area. Many who lost their homes were transferred to temporary shelters.
(Reporting By Andrei Khalip, editing by Larry King)