A deadly forest fire which started on Saturday, June 17, 2017, has blazed a trail of destruction through central Portugal, killing over 60 people, more than half of which burned to death while trapped in their cars. The fire, which was still burning at the time of this article, spread rapidly on four fronts, creating five separate firestorms which raged through the small European country.
According to the Portuguese national news agency, Lusa, the official death toll currently stands at 61, but they expect the number to rise as fire crews are able to safely douse the fires. The Portuguese Secretary of State for Internal Administration, Jorge Gomes, confirmed that over half of those killed had been trapped in their vehicles as the fire tore through the densely forested area between Figueiró dos Vinhos and Castanheira de Pêra. Officials said that 17 victims were located near the road as people fled their vehicles but were unable to escape the forest fire’s deadly grasp.
Several residential properties were also destroyed in the fire; Portuguese television has been flooded with images of people fleeing their homes, escorted by firefighters and emergency response teams as flames engulfed villages.
There are over 1,600 firefighters working across Portugal to control the fire, with police and military units drafted into service to assist. In response to the European Union’s civil protection measure, Spain has sent in two dedicated firefighting aircraft to help control the blazes from the air.
What Caused The Blaze
Officials in Portugal aren’t precisely sure what caused the initial fire, but evidence points to a purely natural cause, rather than arson. The primary theory is that it was started by lightning from a dry thunderstorm. Those are storms with no rain, but which have lightning strikes. Summer wildfires in Portugal are common, but current climate conditions have worsened the risk. There is a heatwave going through Portugal now, ravaging the country with temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius).
Making the situation worse was the terrain of the area. Numerous gorges and ravines were able to funnel the fire quickly, which created new pockets of fire in locations that caught damage control personnel by surprise. According to a local fire expert at the University of Coimbra, the speed at which the fire spread also pointed to it starting in several places at once.
Another thing that made the fires worse is the way that the Portuguese government has approached forestry. Quercus, an environmental association in Portugal, points to what they call a flawed plan, where local pine trees have been replaced with eucalyptus trees. Eucalyptus is dense with an oil that burns extremely easily. Joao Branco, the president of Quercus, said that he asks the Portuguese government to improve Portugal’s forestry policies, but instead of improvements, everything continues in the same way.
This blaze is the worst forest fire in Portugal in over 50 years. During that blaze in 1966, a forest fire near Sintra claimed the lives of 25 soldiers who were working to put out the fire.
On Sunday morning, the President of Portugal paid homage to the workers combating the blaze. Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa spoke of the extreme conditions that the firefighters are having to deal with including soaring temperatures, wind, and zero humidity. Sousa also spoke to the people caught in the tragedy praising them of the human warmth and solidarity that they displayed.
President Sousa wished them all well, sending a message filled with “gratitude, comfort, and support to all those who have been doing the best that they can.”
[Featured Image by Joana Sousa/AP Images]