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Portugal forest fire kills 39

World

Avelar — Raging forest fires in central Portugal killed at least 39 people, many of them trapped in their cars as flames swept over a road, in what Prime Minister Antonio Costa on Sunday called "the biggest tragedy of human life that we have known in years."

The deaths occurred in the Pedrogao Grande area, about 150 kilometers (95 miles) northeast of Lisbon, where some 600 firefighters have been trying to put out the fires since Saturday, Interior Ministry official Jorge Gomes said.

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Firefighters of the Portuguese National Republican Guard work to stop a forest fire from reaching the village of Avelar, central Portugal, at sunrise Sunday, June 18 2017. A number of people have been killed in forest fires in central Portugal, many of them trapped in their cars as flames swept over a road Saturday evening. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

Gomes said 16 people were killed when their vehicles were engulfed by flames on a road between the towns of Figueiro dos Vinhos and Castanheira de Pera, and three others died from smoke inhalation in Figueiro dos Vinhos.

A huge wall of thick smoke and bright red flames towered over the top of trees near houses in the wooded region.

A man on the balcony of a house looks up at a forest fire raging on a hillside above the village of Avelar, central Portugal, before sunrise Sunday, June 18, 2017. A number of people have been killed in forest fires in central Portugal, many of them trapped in their cars as flames swept over a road Saturday evening. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)


"This is a region that has had fires because of its forests, but we cannot remember a tragedy of these proportions," said Valdemar Alves, mayor of Pedrogao Grande. "I am completely stunned by the number of deaths."

Public broadcaster RTP said there were about 20 injured, including six firefighters. Fourteen of the injured were in serious condition, RTP said.

Firefighters of the Portuguese National Republican Guard work to stop a forest fire from reaching the village of Avelar, central Portugal, at sunrise Sunday, June 18 2017. Armando Franca/AP


Spanish state television showed terrifying images from the neighboring country of several people on a road trying to escape the intense smoke that had reduced visibility to a question of a few meters (yards). A young man shared a bottle of water with a distraught woman as she stumbled down the road.

Costa said that firefighting crews were having difficulties in approaching the area because the fire was "very intense." He added that Portuguese authorities were working on identifying the victims and that Spanish rescuers would assist in efforts to control the blazes.

Portuguese National Republican Guard firefighters work to stop a forest fire from reaching the village of Avelar, central Portugal, at sunrise Sunday, June 18 2017. Armando Franca/AP


Costa said that while investigations are ongoing to determine the cause of the fire, authorities believe that the high temperatures of 40 C (104 F) in recent days may have played a part.

Portugal, like most southern European countries, is prone to forest fires in the dry summer months.

Associated Press 

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