MADRID — A raging forest fire enveloped a stretch of road in central Portugal over the weekend, killing at least 61 people, including about 30 motorists who were trapped in their cars.
The fire, which was still burning Sunday, has brought “a dimension of human tragedy that we cannot remember,” Prime Minister António Costa said during a visit to the scorched area around Pedrógão Grande.
The blaze started Saturday, and the flames spread along four fronts with “great violence,” said Jorge Gomes, secretary of state for internal administration. By Sunday, five infernos were raging in central Portugal, he said.
The death toll stood at 61, according to Lusa, the national news agency. Officials said they expected the number to rise.
Half of the people killed died in their cars, Gomes confirmed, after being hemmed in by the flames while driving through the densely forested area between Figueiró dos Vinhos and Castanheira de Pêra.
Officials said they had found 17 bodies near the road, possibly those of people who had tried to escape on foot once they realized that there was no way to continue driving. Two people were also killed in a car crash related to the blaze.
Several houses were destroyed by flames. Portuguese TV showed people scrambling to leave their homes early Sunday, escorted by firefighters and rescue teams, as huge flames engulfed hamlets across the dry, cracked terrain.
Several roads were cut off by flames and thick smoke as firefighters tried to prevent the fires from spreading.
About 1,600 firefighters, assisted by airplanes and helicopters, were working to contain the damage. Police and military units were called in to help, and EU officials in Brussels activated the bloc’s civil protection mechanism to send reinforcements. Spain sent two planes to help contain the fires.
An investigation into the cause of the fires is likely to look into why motorists were left stranded on the road, and whether authorities cut off all of the access roads quickly enough to prevent drivers from inadvertently heading toward the blaze.
The cause of the initial fire near Pedrógão Grande was not immediately clear. Officials had suggested it was started by lightning during a dry thunderstorm, in which lightning strikes but there is no rain.
José Maria de Almeida Rodrigues, national director of Portugal’s judicial police, told Lusa Sunday, “Everything points very clearly toward natural causes.”
Portugal, where summer wildfires are common, has been experiencing a heat wave for days, with temperatures climbing above 100 degrees.
And though fire experts said it was difficult to say for sure how the fires had spread so rapidly, environmentalists warned that the country needed to urgently improve its forest management and fire monitoring.
Domingos Xavier Viegas, a fire expert who is a professor at the University of Coimbra, said the speed of the fire’s progression suggested it had started simultaneously in different places and that its advance was probably aided by the gorges and ravines that cut through the area’s terrain. They can help fires progress, Xavier Viegas told Lusa, creating new pockets of fire that “easily catch people by surprise.”
Wildfires are unpredictable, experts say, especially when high temperatures, low humidity, and a particularly dry landscape create a vast tinderbox in large wooded areas.
João Branco, president of Quercus, an environmental association, said the fires in Portugal reflected “a situation of negligence” and a flawed approach to forestry that has led to the large-scale replacement of pine trees with eucalyptus trees in areas around Pedrógão Grande. Eucalyptus contains an oil that burns easily.
Branco said the government had regularly promised to improve Portugal’s forestry policies but “everything continued in the same way.”
The blaze is Portugal’s worst forest fire in more than half a century. In 1966, 25 soldiers died while trying to put out a fire in the hills near Sintra.
President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa paid tribute to the firefighters, saying they faced the toughest conditions possible: “temperature, wind and zero humidity.” He spoke of solidarity displayed by those caught in the tragedy, and sent a message of “comfort and support.”