LISBON, Portugal - A forest fire, that is being described as the deadliest ever single forest to rage through Portugal, led to dozens of people losing their lives and many being incinerated to death.
Jorge Gomes, the secretary of state for internal affairs said that the devastating forest blaze that broke out in central Portugal on Saturday has left 58 people dead with 18 of them being 'incinerated' while they were trapped in their cars as flames swept over a road between the towns of Figueiro dos Vinhos and Castanheira de Pera - an inland area with many hotels and holiday resorts.
In addition, 59 people were injured and many people still remain missing as homes are wrecked due to the inferno about 150 kilometers (95 miles) northeast of Lisbon.
Gomes added that three others died from smoke inhalation in Figueiro dos Vinhos.
Meanwhile, describing the blaze as “the biggest tragedy,” the Portuguese prime minister, António Costa said, “We are facing the greatest tragedy of human victims of recent times by a disaster of this type.”
Reports stated that the fire, that broke out as the country witnesses temperatures of up to 40C, is possibly the deadliest ever single forest blaze to hit Portugal.
Authorities claimed that over 600 firefighters were battling the flames and were helped by Spanish rescuers as teams of psychologists were deployed to care for survivors, who are 'in shock' and have lost relatives.
Firemen are currently battling the blaze on four different fronts, fanned by the heat and wind.
On Sunday morning, emergency services described the “horrible scenario” and described the blaze as “almost impossible to control.”
The head of the national judicial police told Portuguese media that a lightning strike is believed to have sparked the blaze in the Pedrogao Grande area after investigators found a tree that was hit during a 'dry thunderstorm.’
With many people still missing, authorities fear that the death toll might rise further.
Officials also noted that several roads of the Pedrogao Grande area, 50 km (30 miles) south-east of Coimbra, which is a UNESCO world heritage site and university town popular with tourists and international students, have been cut off.
Valdemar Alves, mayor of Pedrogao Grande said, “This is a region that has had fires because of its forests, but we cannot remember a tragedy of these proportions. I am completely stunned by the number of deaths.”
Further, authorities in central Portugal believe that dry thunderstorms, that are triggered when falling water evaporates before reaching the ground because of high temperatures, are responsible for fueling the fire.
The Prime Minister meanwhile 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.
Like most southern European countries, Portugal is prone to forest fires in the dry summer months.
Earlier on Friday, Portugal's civil protection agency, which coordinates the firefighting efforts, issued a warning of the increased risk for forest fires, citing the high temperatures.
The agency said that all outdoor fires were prohibited.
Further, on Sunday, reports stated that the European Union has activated its civil protection efforts to help fight the fires - with the EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides saying the “EU is fully ready to help.”
Stylianides added that Spain and France are both sending aircraft to help fight the flames.
Meanwhile, Pope Francis led thousands of people in a moment of silent prayer for the victims of the Portugal fire.
At the end of his Sunday prayer from his studio window overlooking St. Peter’s Square, Francis referred to the “devastating fire” and as the crowd fell silent, Francis bowed his head to recall the “many victims” of the blaze.