Portugal forest fires under control after more than 60 deaths

Officials say some fires could reignite after huge blaze ravaged tens of thousands of hectares around Pedrógão Grande.

Forest fires raging in Portugal since the weekend and which have killed more than 60 peoplehave been brought under control, the civil protection agency says.

The huge blaze broke out initially at Pedrógão Grande and spread to adjacent areas including Góis, Pampilhosa da Serra and Arganil.

The fire Pedrógão Grande fire, which ravaged 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) of forests, was doused late on Wednesday.

The blaze in Góis, the second biggest after Pedrógão Grande, was brought under control on Thursday, said Carlos Tavares, the civil protection official leading the operations, though he cautioned that some fires could reignite.

Tavares said the Góis fire had affected 20,000 hectares. Water-bombing planes and nearly 2,400 firefighters were involved in tackling it.

“Higher humidity levels and lower temperatures allowed the firefighters to contain the fire and extinguish the remaining hotspots which had briefly broken out,” Antonio Ribeiro, who led the Pedrógão operations, said.

Press reports suggested that Portugal’s fire plan had not been revised for four years and that the intense heat might have made some communication antennae malfunction.

The president of the League of Firefighters, Jaime Marta Soares, said on Wednesday that he believed arson had caused the fire, contradicting an earlier police account.

The police national chief, Almeida Rodrigues, ruled out arson on Sunday. He blamed dry thunderstorms for the blaze and said they had found a tree hit by lightning.

Marta Soares told local news media the fire had already been burning for two hours before the storm started on Saturday.

“I believe, until there is evidence to the contrary … that the fire was of criminal origin,” he said.

Portugal’s prime minister, António Costa, has called on the emergency services to explain their response to the wildfires. He asked the head of the National Republican Guard on Tuesday why officers had not closed the road where many of the victims burned to death as they fled the flames in their cars.

He also asked for clarification on the extent to which rescuers’ communications systems had been affected by the fire, and for more information on whether the high death toll was the result of unusual weather or problems with the response.

“Why, for how long and what impact was there on the planning, command and execution of operations if your very systems were not working? What was done to establish alternative connections?” Costa asked of the emergency services, according to the state news agency Lusa.

A day earlier, he acknowledged that early efforts to alert the public had been hindered after the flames destroyed phone lines and communications towers, but insisted that “nothing compromised the firefighting efforts”.