A new front in Portugal’s battle to quell devastating forest fires that have claimed dozens of lives opened on Tuesday as firefighters faced a fourth day of soaring temperatures and strong winds.
Eighteen small villages and an old-people’s home were evacuated as more than 800 firefighters fought intense blazes in the district of Góis in central Portugal, 40kms north of Pedrógão Grande, where a catastrophic fire killed at least 64 people and injured 160 over the weekend.
Vítor Vaz Pinto, head of civil protection services, said the situation around Goís was “very serious”. Temperatures above 38 degrees centigrade, low humidity and changing winds were causing “fulminating fires” and reigniting blazes previously extinguished, he said.
A stretch of motorway and several other roads in the area had been closed, he added.
Most of the fires around Pedrógão Grande have been extinguished, Mr Vaz Pinto said, but adverse weather was hampering efforts to quell the flames over about 15 per cent of the affected area.
According to the civil protection authority, more than 2,800 firefighters were combatting 40 separate forest fires across Portugal on Tuesday, most of them in the hilly central region.
A total of 17 aircraft — most of them sent to assist by Spain, France, Italy and Morocco –were in use, as well as helicopters. But dense, low smoke made it difficult for them to operate in some areas, Mr Vaz Pinto said.
Portugal was to end three days of national mourning on Tuesday as residents of the Pedrógão Grande area prepared for the first funerals of the victims. The blaze that swept the area was not only the country’s deadliest on record but also the largest, destroying more than 30,000 hectares of forest.
António Costa, the prime minister, has asked the civil protection services, police and weather office for immediate answers about the circumstances surrounding the Pedrógão Grande fire.
In a dispatch reported by the Lusa news agency, he said it was urgent to clarify if rare weather conditions had contributed to the size and intensity of the blaze and the loss of so many lives – a tragedy that he said was without parallel in Portugal, a country where “unhappily forest fires are common”.
He also wanted to know why a stretch of road where most of the victims perished had not been closed and for clarification of reports that a communications system used by the emergency services had failed, Lusa reported.