Dozens die in Portugal wildfires

More than 1,500 firefighters in Portugal are still battling to control major wildfires in the central region of the country, where one blaze killed 62 people.

Reinforcements are due to arrive Monday, including more water-dropping planes from Spain, France and Italy as part of a European Union cooperation program.

Portugal is observing three days of national mourning after 62 people were killed in a wildfire Saturday night around the town of Pedrogao Grande, which is by far the deadliest on record. Just over 1,000 firefighters are still attending that blaze about 150 kilometers (90 miles) north of Lisbon.

Scorching weather, with temperatures surpassing 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), as well as strong winds and dry woodland after weeks with little rain are fueling the blazes.

Portuguese officials say giant clouds of smoke are preventing the deployment of water-dropping aircraft on wildfires in the central region of the country where 62 people have died in the runaway flames.

Civil Protection Agency commander Elisio Oliveira has told reporters that cooler night-time temperatures helped firefighters bring some blazes under control.

However, some of the wildfires are still racing through inaccessible parts of hill ranges about 150 kilometers (95 miles) northeast of Lisbon. That is where the aircraft are needed.

Temperatures are forecast to reach close to 40 C (104 F) there later Monday.

Fire experts are pointing to a series of shortcomings in Portugal's strategy of dealing with wildfires.

There is a broad consensus that more work is needed on prevention, starting with forest cleaning and the creation of fire breaks.

But Paulo Fernandes, a forest researcher at Portugal's Tras-os-Montes e Alto Douro University, notes that around 90 percent of landowners have smallholdings, making it difficult for authorities to oversee them all. Xavier Viegas, a wildfire expert at Portugal's Coimbra University, says Portugal needs a longer-term strategy.

Both experts say local people need instructions on how to react when a wildfire is approaching so they don't act rashly.

The deaths has brought growing criticism of authorities for not doing more to prevent the tragedy.

Portugal's leading environmental lobby group, Quercus, has issued a statement blaming the weekend blazes on "forest management errors and bad political decisions" by governments over recent decades.

The association is rebuking authorities for allowing the planting of huge swathes of eucalyptus, the country's most common and most profitable species - but one that's often blamed for stoking blazes. It also says official bodies don't do enough to coordinate wildfire prevention.

Emergency services have also been criticized for not closing a road where 47 of the deaths occurred as people fled the flames. The government has acknowledged that the huge fires occasionally led to a breakdown in communications.

A British man has told of his dramatic escape from one of the wildfires.

Like more than half of the dead in Saturday's blaze, Daniel Starling jumped in his car and raced away as the flames bore down. He came across a family of four elderly people and stopped to pick them up.

The 56-year-old from Norwich, England, says "we stopped at one point, because we did not know where to go, because there were flames everywhere. But I just carried on the only way that I knew. (It was) just flames over the car and the family and me screaming."

Starling told The Associated Press on Monday that he had to speed around trees that had fallen on the road and had to go off the road. He finally came across a policeman at a junction, where he stopped. He says "the family got out and they were kissing the car."

He says, however, the house that he has been building since 2009 in the region is now burned out.

 

 

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