Bushfire death toll climbs to 61 in Portuguese disaster

Picture: Reuters
Picture: Reuters

In a grim reminder of Black Saturday, a bushfire in Portugal has killed at least 61 people, most of them trapped in escaping cars that were caught in the blaze.

Dozens of others, including firefighters, were injured. The fire has been declared a national disaster.

Ominous smoke clouds hang above Portuguese  towns. Picture Caleb Cluff

Ominous smoke clouds hang above Portuguese towns. Picture Caleb Cluff

On a day that saw temperatures near 40 degrees, Portuguese 'bombeiros' or firefighters found themselves too thinly spread to contain over 50 fires that began in the heat.

The worst fire began at Pedrogao Grande in the Leiria district, and swept through the vast eucalyptus plantations that have proliferated in Portugal.

Sixteen people were trapped in their vehicles on the road between the towns of Castanheira and Figuero dos Vinhos and died, and another three perished in Pedrogao.

People reported hearing explosions in Figuero dos Vinhos as gas cylinders exploded in the face of the fire. The town, which has a population of approximately 5000 plus more in the districts surrounding, lost power during the disaster, leaving electric water pumps unusable.

“It’s. an utter disaster,” The Courier reporter Caleb Cluff wrote from the affected region of Portugal “People are missing, firefighters injured. Towns cut off in a firestorm.”

Resident of the tiny hamlet of Figueria Danny Starling said he saw flames leaping over his car as he fled the approaching fire.

He then stopped to rescue four elderly residents of the next town before his car broke down in the heat.

They were rescued by the Guardia Nacional.

The fire appeared from nowhere and was devastating. I had personally inspected the fire from a hilltop some 15 kilometres away at 7pm and thought it well under control.

By 8pm the IC8, a major road in Portugal, had been closed and people in the region were told to evacuate to Pombal, over 20km north.

The Portuguese fire service app collapsed under the weight of inquiries, and in some towns people panicked as fire services failed to arrive, leaving them to fight the blaze on their own.

This June in Portugal has been particularly hot and dry, and the eucalypt plantations which are now widespread have dramatically altered water tables, leaving towns without water to fight such disasters.

Portuguese president Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa is expected to visit Pedrogao Grande and Figuero dos Vinhos tomorrow.

Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa said that the death toll had risen from 19 to 24, and that that number may yet increase.

He defined the fire as "the worst human tragedy of recent times" to befall the country, adding that the priority now was to extinguish the fire and provide assistance to the victims.

Many of the victims died trapped in their cars while trying to flee the blaze, whose cause was not yet known.

In addition to the dead and injured, two people have been reported missing.

With AAP