By HELENA ALVES and ARMANDO FRANCA
AVELAR, Portugal — Raging forest fires in central Portugal killed at least 62 people, many of them trapped in their cars as flames swept over a road, in what the prime minister on Sunday called “the biggest tragedy” the country has experienced in years.
Portugal has declared three days of national mourning for the victims in the blaze “which has caused an irreparable loss of human life,” according to a government statement.
A lightning strike is believed to have sparked the blaze 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.
“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.”
Interior Ministry official Jorge Gomes said that 60 people died from the flames and suffocating smoke, while another two people perished in a traffic accident related to the fires. Other 54 people were injured, including four firefighters and a seriously injured minor, Gomes told state broadcaster RTP.
Authorities had previously said that 40 C (104 F) heat in recent days might have played a part in the inferno about 150 kilometers (95 miles) northeast of Lisbon. More than 350 soldiers were joining Sunday the 700 firefighters who were struggling to put out the blaze since Saturday, the government said.
A huge wall of thick smoke and bright red flames towered over the top of trees near houses in the wooded region. Local resident Isabel Brandao told The Associated Press that she had feared for her life.
“Yesterday we saw the fire but thought…