At least 57 people have been killed in wildfires that have been blazing in central Portugal since Saturday, a government official announced on Sunday.
The death toll in what may be the deadliest-ever single forest blaze in the country has gradually climbed from 19 initially announced late on Saturday,
Jorge Gomes, the secretary of state for internal affairs, said most of the victims were caught in their vehicles on the road.
Another 59 people have been injured and taken to hospitals, including five in serious condition.
The blaze on Saturday hit the mountainous area of Pedrogao Grande, 200 km northeast of Lisbon, amid an intense heat wave and rainless thunderstorms. Police said a lightning striking a tree probably caused the fire after investigators found a tree that was hit during a “dry thunderstorm”.
Dry thunderstorms are frequent when falling water evaporates before reaching the ground because of high temperatures. Portugal, like most southern European countries, is prone to forest fires in the dry summer months.
Authorities had previously said that 40 C (104 F) heat in recent days might have played a part in the inferno. About 700 firefighters have been trying to put out the fires since Saturday, Gomes said.
Hundreds of firefighters were still battling the flames on Sunday morning. Various local motorways were shut for safety reasons.
“The smoke cloud is very low, which does not allow helicopters and fire planes to work efficiently … but we’re doing everything possible and impossible to put out this fire,” Gomes said, adding that no villages were currently at risk.
President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa visited the site of the tragedy during the night and later expressed his condolences.
The “situation is unfortunately atypical …” he said. “It was not possible to do more than what has been done” in prevention and the immediate response.
Prime Minister Antonio Costa Sunday called the fire “the biggest tragedy of human life that we have known in years.”
Television footage showed hundreds of local residents being treated for smoke intoxication in emergency services tents set up in the area. Many who lost their homes were transferred to temporary shelters.
Portugal’s civil protection agency, which coordinates the firefighting efforts, issued a warning of the increased risk for forest fires in Friday. Citing the high temperatures, it said that all outdoor fires were prohibited.
The European Union has activated its civil protection efforts to help Portugal extinguish the fires. EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides expressed his condolences for the victims in a statement, saying the “EU is fully ready to help.”
Stylianides says that in response to a request for help by Portugal, Spain and France are both sending aircraft to help fight the flames. France is sending three planes, while Spain has sent several firefighting aircraft.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy tweeted that he is “overwhelmed by the tragedy at Pedrogao Grande. The Portuguese people can count on our solidarity, support and care.”