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Huge Portugal forest fire kills dozens
Video provided by AFP
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Hundreds of soldiers joined firefighters Sunday battling wildfires raging across central Portugal that have killed dozens.

At least 61 people have died in the flames and suffocating smoke, according to Jorge Gomes, an Interior Ministry official. Officials said many victims died trapped in their cars.

Portugal declared Sunday through Tuesday as national days of mourning for the fire “which has caused an irreparable loss of human life.”

“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 Pedrogao Grande. “I am completely stunned by the number of deaths.”

State broadcaster RTP showed terrifying images of people on a road trying to escape the intense smoke that had reduced visibility to a few yards.  A huge wall of thick smoke and bright red flames towered over the top of trees near houses in the wooded region.

“Yesterday we saw the fire but thought it was very far. I never thought it would come to this side,” resident Isabel Brandao told The Associated Press. “We were afraid the fire would reach us.”

The government said 360 soldiers joined the 700 firefighters battling the blaze that started Saturday. Prime Minister Antonio Costa said firefighting crews were having difficulties approaching the area because the fire was “very intense.”

A lightning strike may have sparked the inferno in the Pedrogao Grande area after investigators found a tree that was hit during a “dry thunderstorm,” the head of the national judicial police told Portuguese media.

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.

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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.” France is sending three planes and Spain has sent several firefighting aircraft, he said.

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.”

Contributing: The Associated Press

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