More than 60 killed in massive wildfire in Portugal

LISBON, Portugal — A raging wildfire has ripped through central Portugal, killing 61 people and injuring dozens more in what officials describe as the “greatest wildfire tragedy of recent years.”

At least 54 people were injured in the blaze Saturday, including eight firefighters and a child.

Four of the firefighters were in critical condition Sunday, according to Paulo Santos, an operations and emergencies official with the National Relief Operations Command in Lisbon.

The government has declared three days of mourning. The head of Portugal’s judiciary police told reporters the fire was started by natural causes.

“We have been able to determine that the origin of the fire was caused by dry thunderstorms,” Jose Maria Almeida Rodrigues said, according to the Portuguese state-run news agency Lusa.

Some victims were burned to death in their cars as they tried to flee, officials said.

The blaze spread Saturday to the Pedrogao Grande community, forcing residents to flee the area to escape towering flames. Pedrogao Grande is about 120 miles north of Lisbon.

“Many cars could not get out and people burned to death inside their cars,” Interior Ministry official Jorge Gomes told TVI.

Firefighters were still fighting the flames Sunday.

The municipality’s mayor, Valdemar Alves, said there were areas “completely surrounded” by the blaze and not enough firefighters to battle the flames.

“The violence of this fire was such that I am certain many people have died,” Alves told TVI. “I am shocked with this death toll.”

Authorities said the number of victims might rise as fire officials inspect the villages affected.

More than 700 firefighters and other emergency responders are battling the blaze.

Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa said schools in the municipalities of Pedrogao, Figueiro and Castanheira will be closed “for an indefinite period” and exams will be postponed.

Portugal President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa offered a word of comfort to those still battling the fires and said that “all that could be done was done.”

A man stands in the stairway of a house with smoke billowing from the roof in an area devastated by a wildfire in Canical, near Alvares, on June 18, 2017.
(Photo: MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP/Getty Images)

Britain issued a travel warning for its citizens, telling them of the fires and urging them to be careful while visiting or driving through woodland areas.

“Around 2.6 million British nationals visited Portugal in 2015. Most visits are trouble-free,” the British Foreign and Commonwealth office said in a statement.

On Friday, Portugal’s National Authority for Public Safety issued wildfire alerts due to high temperatures, low humidity and strong winds.

Last year, thousands of firefighters battled at least 12 huge fires across the country.

Three people were killed and over 1,000 evacuated in the Portuguese island of Madeira due to the fierce wildfires a year ago.