AVELAR, Portugal (AP/CBSNEWS) – A raging forest fire in central Portugal sent flames sweeping over roads, killing at least 61 people, many of them trapped in their cars as they tried to flee, officials said Sunday. The country’s prime minister called it “the biggest tragedy” that Portugal has experienced in decades and declared three days of national mourning.
A huge wall of thick smoke and bright red flames towered over the top of trees in the forested Pedrogao Grande area some 95 miles northeast of Lisbon where a lightning strike was believed to have sparked the blaze Saturday. Investigators found a tree that was hit during a “dry thunderstorm,” the head of the national judicial police told Portuguese media.
Dry thunderstorms are frequent when falling water evaporates before reaching the ground because of high temperatures. Portugal, like most southern European countries, is prone to forest fires in the dry summer months. At least four other significant wildfires affected different areas of the country on Sunday but the one in Pedrogao Grande was responsible for all the deaths.
“The dimensions of this fire have caused a human tragedy beyond any in our memory,” said Prime Minister Antonio Costa told reporters on his arrival at the scene Sunday. “Something extraordinary has taken place and we have to wait for technicians to properly determine its causes.”
He said the death toll was lowered from the previously reported 62 victims because one person had been counted twice.
More than 350 soldiers on Sunday joined the 700 firefighters who have been struggling to put out the blaze. Authorities say temperatures as high as 40 degrees Celsius — 104 Fahrenheit — in the area in recent days might have also played a part in the inferno.
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