A raging forest fire in central Portugal killed at least 62 people — many of whom died in their cars while trying to flee, officials said Sunday.


Investigators believed the blaze was sparked by a lightning strike starting Saturday night. The catastrophe was one of the worst the country had experienced in decades.


President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa said Portugal’s pain “knows no end,” declaring three days of national mourning.


The fire in the wooded area of Pedrogao Grande — about 95 miles northeast of Lisbon — created a huge wall of thick smoke and bright red flames towering over the top of trees.

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More than 350 soldiers joined 700 firefighters to tackle the massive blaze.

(PAULO NOVAIS/EPA)


“The dimensions of this fire have caused a human tragedy beyond any in our memory,” Prime Minister Antonio Costa said. “Something extraordinary has taken place and we have to wait for technicians to properly determine its causes.”


More than 350 soldiers had joined 700 firefighters fighting the fire.


Officials said a lightning strike during a “dry thunderstorm” sparked the blaze. Dry thunderstorms occur when falling water evaporates before reaching the ground.

People look at fire and smoke during a massive forest fire in Pedrogao Grande, in central Portugal on Sunday.

People look at fire and smoke during a massive forest fire in Pedrogao Grande, in central Portugal on Sunday.

(MIGUEL VIDAL/REUTERS)


Temperatures in the area over the weekend were as high as 104 degrees.

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Portugal, like most southern European countries, is prone to forest fires in dry summer months.


Interior Ministry official Jorge Gomes said firefighting crews were having difficulties battling the fire, which was “very intense” in at least two of its four fronts. He worried strong winds could help spread the blaze further.

People are evacuated from their houses by Red Cross and police members due the proximity of a forest fire in central Portugal.

People are evacuated from their houses by Red Cross and police members due the proximity of a forest fire in central Portugal.

(PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP/Getty Images)


Gomes gave a grim description of the deaths to state broadcaster RTP.


At least 30 people died inside their cars as they tried to flee between the towns of Figueiro dos Vinhos and Castanheira de Pera, he said.


He added that 17 others died right outside their cars or by the road, 11 people died in the forest and two people died in a car accident related to the fire.


“We are most likely facing the biggest tragedy of human life that we have known,” Costa tweeted.

With News Wire Services

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