(VNF) - More than 1,000 firefighters were on Monday (June 19th) battling to get control of a massive forest fire that swept through central Portugal at the weekend, as the nation mourned the 64 killed in the flames.
A fire fighting aircraft drops water over a forest fire outside the village of Pedrogao Grande in central Portugal. (AP Photo/Paulo Duarte)
Many victims were burnt as they were trapped in their cars around the epicentre of the blaze in Pedrogao Grande, in what is the deadliest such disaster in Portugal's recent history.
By Monday evening the death toll had hit 64, officials said. The total number of injured in the region of the fire - which authorities said was 70 per cent under control - stood at 135 since Saturday.
Portugal's national Route 236 was transformed into "a road of hell" where 47 of the fatalities occurred as the ferocious blaze ripped through the wooded countryside. Most of them families who had spent the afternoon at a beach on a nearby river, local authorities said.
Although the searing temperatures had dropped slightly on Monday, the fire was still raging, spreading to neighbouring regions of Castelo Branco and Coimbra, as firefighters continued their grim search for bodies.
'TREE HIT BY LIGHTNING'
Police chief Almeida Rodrigues blamed dry thunderstorms for the blaze which broke out on Saturday in Pedrogao Grande, ruling out arson. "We found the tree hit by the lightning," he said.
"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.
"It was really hell. I thought the end of the world had come," said Maria de Fatima Nunes, a survivor.
The wooded hills in the area north of Lisbon, which 24 hours before had glowed bright green with eucalyptus and pine trees, were gutted by the flames.
Along the IC-8 highway cutting through the fire zone, smoke was still rising from the ground and small pockets of fire burned among the charred, black tree stumps.
One road running through Pedrogao Grande was littered with burnt-out cars. At one spot, a police officer watched over the covered body of a victim of the fire.
Other bodies were found in houses in isolated areas. At least three villages near Pedrogao Grande were evacuated.
Over the weekend, Portugal sweltered under temperatures topping 40 degrees Celsius in several regions.
About 35 forest fires continued to burn across the country on Monday, with more than 2,000 firefighters and 700 vehicles mobilised.
Spain, France and Italy have sent water-bombing planes and Greece has offered firefighters. The European Union has also offered to help.
Portugal was hit by a series of fires last year which devastated more than 100,000 hectares 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./.