PENELA, Portugal: Raging forest fires in central Portugal have killed at least 43 people, most of whom burnt to death in their cars, and injured scores of others, the government said Sunday.
Nearly 600 firefighters and 160 vehicles were dispatched late Saturday to tackle the blaze, which broke out in the afternoon in the municipality of Pedrogao Grande, about 50 kilometers from Coimbra, before spreading fast across several fronts.
“Unfortunately this seems to be the greatest tragedy we have seen in recent years in terms of forest fires,” a visibly moved Prime Minister Antonio Costa said.
“The number of fatalities could still rise,” he said at the Civil Protection headquarters near Lisbon. “The priority now is to save those people who could still be in danger.”
Portugal was sweltering under a severe heatwave Saturday, with temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in several regions.
Some 60 forest fires broke out across the country during the night, with around 1,700 firefighters battling to put them out.
Secretary of State for the Interior Jorge Gomes said 43 people burned to death, mostly trapped in their cars engulfed by flames in the Leiria region. At least 59 were injured.
The flames spread “with great violence”, moving out on four fronts, Gomes said. “It is difficult to say if they were fleeing the flames or were taken by surprise.”