Fast-spreading forest fires have killed at least 57 people in central Portugal.
Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa on Sunday called the disaster “the biggest tragedy of human life that we have known in years.”
Unseasonably high heat and extended droughts created the perfect conditions for fires in the forested Pedrogao Grande region some 100 miles north of the capital, Lisbon. Apparently a lightning strike started the blaze, which spread quickly across the area.
The flames swept across a highway, trapping fleeing people in the cars, where at least 16 died.
At least three other people died of smoke inhalation.
Hundreds of residents who were forced to flee were treated for smoke inhalation in hastily erected emergency medical tents.
The smoke was so thick visibility was reduced to a few yards.
“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 Pedrógão Grande. “I am completely stunned by the number of deaths.”
One resident explained that the fire moved so fast is caught people off guard.
“Yesterday we saw the fire but thought it was very far. I never thought it would come to this side,” said Isabel Brandao. “At 3:30 a.m., my mother-in-law woke me up quickly and we never went to sleep again. We were afraid the fire would reach us.”
Some 700 firefighters are fighting the fire, but the intense heat is making it difficult.
Neighbors send aid
EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides said the “EU is fully ready to help.”
France and Spain have already sent several firefighting aircraft