By Axel Bugge and Andrei Khalip
PEDROGAO GRANDE, Portugal (Reuters) – More than 1,000 firefighters were still battling Portugal’s deadliest forest blaze on Monday after it killed dozens over the weekend, and a fireman died from his injuries in a hospital, bringing the death toll to at least 63.
More than 70 people, including 13 firefighters, were taken to hospital on Monday with burns and injuries as the fires ravaged the central districts of Leiria and Castelo Branco.
Prime Minister Antonio Costa, who on Sunday visited the affected a mountainous area about 200 kilometres (125 miles) northeast of Lisbon, called it the biggest human tragedy in Portugal in living memory.
Despite government assurances that the first response by the emergency services was swift and adequate, media and residents questioned its efficiency and the strategic planning in a country which is used to wooded areas burning every year.
“So what failed this Saturday? Everything, as it has failed for decades,” read a headline in the newspaper Publico. It blamed a lack of coordination between services in charge of fire prevention and firefighting and poor forestry reserve planning.
Xavier Viegas, an expert on forest fires, said the blaze spread too quickly and violently for firefighters to respond in some villages, but the deaths have mainly shown shortcomings in communications to evacuate people in time.
At least half the victims died in their cars as they tried to flee along a local motorway. Many other bodies were found next to the road, suggesting they had abandoned their vehicles in panic. The firefighter who died on Monday had been helping people out of their cars when he was badly burned.
“It’s still hard to identify what failed, but it’s a bit of everything,” Viegas said. “Obviously, certain things that should have been done had not been done – especially in communicating with the population, telling them about the danger levels, areas to be avoided.”
An online public petition demanding an investigation into possible failures by the authorities has gathered 440 signatures. Some local residents said they had been without the support of firefighters for hours as their homes burned. Many blamed depopulation of villages that left wooded areas untended.
Other countries prone to forest fires have systems in place to warn people of danger. Australia, for example, revised its fire warning system after fires killed 173 people in 2009 and now uses text messages and emergency broadcasts to warn people.
“There’s an urgent need to organise that kind of alerting,” Viegas said. “Here, at best, someone from the parish council goes knocking on doors telling people to leave.”
Armindo Antonio, 67, was evacuated with his family on Sunday evening by civil protection workers who came to his village. He has no idea when he can go back and said he had received no information from authorities.
“All of this is so difficult to understand,” said Antonio, whose five family members had been housed in a packed old-age home with other evacuees. “It could have been our village.”
Civil protection commander Elisio Oliveira said the firefighting efforts were progressing well, but the fire was not yet under control. Water planes, including French and Spanish aircraft, flew overhead. Two army battalions were helping the emergency services.
“There is still a lot of forest that can burn,” said Rui Barreto, deputy chief firefighter at the makeshift emergency services headquarters in Pedrogao Grande, where the blaze began on Saturday.
Police said a lightning strike on a tree probably caused the blaze, in a region hit by an intense heat wave and dry, gusty winds that fanned the flames. However, the regional prosecutor still ordered a criminal investigation into the causes. Many forest fires in Portugal are caused by arson or carelessness.
(Writing by Andrei Khalip, editing by Larry King)
Top image: Firefighters work to put out a forest fire near Bouca. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante