The proud nation of Portugal has suffered it's greatest tragedy in history as a massive and widespread forest fire has claimed the lives of at least 61 confirmed victims so far.
The still raging forest fire has swept across roads and bridges and many homes in what investigators suggest appears to be a devastation of catastrophic proportions.
Many of the victims were found burnt alive in their vehicles in what is apparently a failed attempt to flee the roaring heat of the fire. Unfortunately they simply couldn't make it out of the inferno since it was able to cover great distances in such a short period of time.
Portugal Prime Minister called it “the biggest tragedy” that Portugal has ever experienced in decades and declared three days of national mourning.
Sky high flames still appear over Pedrogao Grande area some 150 kilometers (95 miles) northeast of Lisbon where it is believed that a lightning strike sparked the blaze on Saturday.
Portugal is prone to fires seasonally in the summer to due dry and humid conditions where excess bark and brush are easily set ablaze. Dry thunderstorms also are a normal condition in the region where lighting and electrical storms tend to surface with little to no rainfall to counter the damage if fire were to occur.
Across Portugal 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.
Prime Minister Antonio Acosta said, “The dimensions of this fire have caused a human tragedy beyond any in our memory. Something extraordinary has taken place and we have to wait for technicians to properly determine its causes.”
He went on to state the death toll officially was at 61 contrary to previous reports however there could be more coming in the recent days ahead as investigators have yet to sift through the ash and destruction completely.
The Portugal Government said that around 350 soldiers on joined in the recovery efforts along with the 700 firefighters who have been struggling to put out the blaze on Sunday. Authorities so say temperatures as high as 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) have been reached in the area in the past few days which might have also contributed to the deadly inferno.
Portugal, which saw 25 Portuguese soldiers die fighting wildfires in 1966 hasn't seen such a deadly series of fires since that occurrence half a century ago. Last August, an outbreak of fires across Portugal killed four people, including three on the island of Madeira, and destroyed huge areas of forest.
A local resident Isabel Brandao told the Associated Press “Yesterday we saw the fire but thought it was very far. I never thought it would come to this side,” she said Sunday. “At 3:30 a.m., my mother-in-law woke me up quickly and we never went to sleep again. We were afraid the fire would reach us.”
A popular state television broadcaster RTP showed horrific images of several people on a road trying to escape the intense smoke that had reduced visibility to a few meters (yards). An innocent young man who was a victim was seen sharing a bottle of water with a distraught woman as she stumbled down the road.
“A travesty of epic proportions” local resident Julio Valentia Rodrigo said when referring to the blaze. Rodrigo is a local farmer who employs 39 others on his small goat and dairy farm and said that he was out of town when the tragedy occurred. His farm is now completely gone. “I have not seen any of my family since the fire happened” he said. “I have searched all the shelters and nobody has seen them.”
The devastating loss of life is most certain to increase and it's only mid June with two more months of dry conditions ahead.
Jorge Goes, of the Interior Ministry said “Firefighting crews were having difficulties battling the fire, which was very intense in at least two of its four fronts. Authorities were worried about strong winds that could help spreading the blaze further.”
Schools in the area were closed until further notice and outdoor fires were banned, authorities announced Sunday.