Forest fires rip through central Portugal as death toll climbs to 62

Forest fires rip through central Portugal as death toll climbs to 62

Forest fires rip through central Portugal as death toll climbs to 62

Updated 19 June 2017, 2:00 AEST

At least 62 people, including several firefighters, are killed as forest fires rip through several towns in central Portugal, many of them trapped in their cars as flames sweep over a road.

Raging forest fires in central Portugal have killed at least 62 people, including several firefighters, in what Prime Minister Antonio Costa on Sunday called "the biggest tragedy of human life that we have known in years".

Some of the deaths occurred in the Pedrogao Grande area, about 150 kilometres northeast of Lisbon, where some 600 firefighters have been trying to put out the fires since Saturday,

Interior Ministry official Jorge Gomes said.

At least 18 of the people killed in the Pedrogao Grande district were fleeing by car when they became trapped as flames swept over the road.

In what is a heavily forested region, roads are vulnerable to the flames.

Almost 60 other people have been injured, including several firefighters.

Televised images showed a huge wall of thick smoke and bright red flames towering over the top of trees near houses in the wooded region.

"This is a region that has had fires because of its forests, but we cannot remember a tragedy of these proportions," Pedrogao Grande Mayor Valdemar Alves said.

"I am completely stunned by the number of deaths."

Public broadcaster RTP said there were about 20 injured, including six firefighters. Fourteen of the injured were in serious condition, RTP said.

Firefighters struggle to even get near the 'intense' fire

Local Avelar resident Isabel Brandao who fled the fire said she had feared for her life.

"Yesterday we saw the fire but thought it was very far. I never thought it would come to this side," she said.

"At 3:30am, my mother-in-law woke me up quickly and we never went to sleep again. We were afraid the fire would reach us."

The Prime Minister said that firefighting crews were having difficulties in approaching the area because the fire was "very intense".

Portuguese authorities were working on identifying the victims and Spanish rescuers would assist in efforts to control the blazes, he added.

Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy offered support to neighbouring Portugal, tweeting that he was "overwhelmed by the tragedy" and that the Portuguese people could "count on our solidarity, support and care".

Mr Costa said that while investigations were ongoing to determine the cause of the fire, authorities believed that the high temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius in recent days may have played a part.

While visiting the command centre, Mr Costa said the Pedrogao Grande fire was thought to have started from a lightning strike.

The southern European country is prone to forest fires in the dry summer months.