Death toll increases to 37 as Portugal declares state of public calamity north of the Tejo

Portugal woke up this morning to new fire horror. Twenty-six ‘monster blazes’ are sweeping across tens of kilometres from Leiria in the centre to Moncão in the north. Six people were confirmed dead at 7am, that number has since risen to 37, with over 70 injured, 15 seriously – and several people still missing. Hundreds of animals and livestock have perished. Scores of properties have been damaged. Over 3000 firefighters are ‘on the ground’ but it’s not enough. The government has declared a state of “public calamity” north of the Tejo river.

The words on people’s lips are “we’ve never seen anything like this”.

High winds, high temperatures – conditions remain stacked against populations and authorities as they battle to bring about some kind of change.

Early this morning, CMTV carried graphic footage with trees literally exploding in the background as reporters filed their footage.

One appealed to readers to open an atlas and plot the geographical points he was giving “just to get an idea of how big this fire is”.

The fire he was talking about, stretches over 34 kilometres between Tondela and Nelas, in the borough of Viseu.

But it is only one of the 26 still raging as reports talk of communities ‘left on their own’ – firefighters simply too overstretched to get everywhere.

The deaths began yesterday – dubbed Portugal’s “worst day of the year” for forest fires: two in Penacova, one in Sertã.

Since then two people have been confirmed dead in Oliveira do Hospital, another in Nelas, and then a sudden slew of new tragic numbers, seemingly rising by the hour but all thought to relate to the fires of yesterday.

A one-month-old baby reported early today as among those ‘missing’ has since been confirmed dead.

According to reports, also among the dead was a young pregnant woman.

Despite the forecast of rain, it has yet to arrive.

The country remains on ‘red alert’ until 8pm this evening.

Besides the dead, there are scores of injuries, four of which were seriously hurt in a car accident as they tried to flee a blaze in Aveiro.

There is even a report of someone killed as he/ she tried to flee on the A25 motorway on foot in Aveiro, but that has not yet been confirmed by Civil Protection national command.

Civil Protection’s spokesperson Patrícia Gaspar has nonetheless confirmed various failings in the SIRESP emergency communications network – the system that authorities are meant to rely on in these situations, and which has come under attack throughout this summer’s infernos.

Questioned over whether reinforcements would be arriving in the next few hours, Gaspar is quoted as saying: “All available means are committed”, and that the only ‘changes’ can involve moving teams on the ground “from one fire to the next”.

Last night, she gave a new total for the day’s forest fires: 443 in the space of less than 12 hours, 108 of which remained “active, of elevated complexity”.

“Various villages have been evacuated” as a result of the blazes in Moncão, Seiã and Lousã, while dozens of roads and stretches of motorways remain closed, as do a number railway routes.

As light returned early this morning, hopes were that today somehow might end on a better note. At 4pm this afternoon, the map of the country’s fires did not hold out much hope. At least 16 significant blazes are logged on the website, and there are scores of others at different stages of combat.

What is so puzzling is the ‘lay-out’ of the fires. They literally start in the Leiria area and fan upwards, with no significant blazes south of Lisbon.

Air support from Morocco is said to be on the way, but very little appears to be in the air this afternoon – possibly because the raging fires are too intense. Perhaps with the declaration of public calamity, firefighters and equipment from other countries will be forthcoming.

To follow the picture nationally click on, or tune in to any of the major television networks, CMTV carrying some of the most dramatic footage as journalists venture deep into the areas ravaged by flames.

One clip doing the rounds of social media and featured on television channels is of a terrified driver as he encountered flames on either side of the motorway. From the footage, it’s a miracle the man escaped. The clip, even for people who cannot understand Portuguese, is dramatic and self-explanatory: (click here)

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Image: being widely shared over Facebook this morning. Taken by João Mourinho in Vieira de Leiria yesterday.