Portugal's government criticized for fire deaths

Patrice Gainsbourg
Junho 20, 2017

Many forest fires in Portugal are caused by arson or carelessness.

According to the government, most of the people who were killed died trying to escape their vehicles when the flames unexpectedly whipped across the road.

Hundreds of firefighters tried to tackle the blaze, which had spread across several fronts.

Prime Minister Antonio Costa said that firefighting crews were having difficulties in approaching the area because the fire was "very intense".

Costa warned the death toll could increase, adding there were now more than 700 emergency staff deployed to tackle the blaze along with air support from Spain and France.

"So many deaths represent an nearly unprecedented tragedy in the history of democratic Portugal, " President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa said in a televised speech on Sunday night. Local resident Isabel Brandao told The Associated Press that she had feared for her life.

Other countries prone to forest fires have systems in place to warn people of danger.

The country's Civil Protection department said that the battle against the flames is still very hard in the Pedrogao Grande, where 1,100 soldiers and firefighters are working with hundreds of vehicles and dozens of aircraft. Portugal's Social Welfare Department is providing social support for the displaced through 400 social welfare officials, assisted by the Portuguese Red Cross (see further details below). "The last thing I told my parents was that I was dying", a resident said.

At least three of the victims died from smoke inhalation inside the town while 16 others died trapped in their cars.

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Both men have been serving long sentences for armed robbery and other crimes, according to the Department of Corrections website. Monica had been with the force for more than seven years and Billue had served for almost a decade, according to police.

Expressing shock and horror at the deaths, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who comes from Portugal, said the United Nations was ready to help. To date, 18 people have been taken to hospitals in Lisbon, Porto and Coimbra, five of them - four firefighters and a child - seriously injured.

The government set up centers near the scene to help people who lost their homes and some nearby schools will remain closed for now, Costa said in Pedrogao Grande on Sunday in comments broadcast by RTP. It has been over 50 years since 25 Portuguese soldiers perished fighting wildfires in 1966. Others say the fires flared up so quickly because landowners hadn't obeyed the law and cleared their plots of undergrowth.The deaths, the most in memory caused by forest fires in Portugal, have also shown shortcomings in communication systems to evacuate people from villages.

"We are most likely facing the biggest tragedy of human life that we have known", Mr Costa added. "When I got to the village, I messaged my parents to tell them: 'I am in a village, fire is all around, this is the end, '" 36-year-old Gareth Roberts, who has lived in central Portugal for the past four years, told BBC news.

A French person is among the more than 60 people killed in wildfires sweeping through central Portugal.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy tweeted that he is "overwhelmed by the tragedy at Pedrogao Grande".

In Kazan, Russia, Portugal's national soccer team wore black arm bands and stood for a moment of silence with the Mexican team in solidarity with the forest fire victims.

Coach Fernando Santos, Cristiano Ronaldo and the rest of the players released a statement saying "in this sad hour, we send our deepest sympathies to the families, friends and loved ones of the victims of the fires".

Hatton reported from Lisbon, Portugal.

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