A wildfire is reflected in a stream at Penela in Coimbra in central Portugal on Sunday. (AFP)
Pedrogao Grande, Portugal, June 18 (Reuters): A huge forest fire raging since yesterday in central Portugal has killed at least 62 people, most of them dying in their cars as they tried to flee, the government said today.
"The dimension of this fire was such that we don't have memory of such a human tragedy," Prime Minister Antonio Costa said in Pedrogao Grande, about 200km northeast of Lisbon.
Most victims were caught in their vehicles on the road while fleeing flames that were destroying their homes. Costa said the death toll could rise as firefighters inspected charred remains of some buildings in remote villages.
Police said a lightning strike on a tree probably caused the blaze yesterday in a region hit by an intense heat wave and dry, gusty winds, which had fanned the flames.
The Prime Minister said the emergency services acted as fast as they could but acknowledged that some of the efforts like alerting the population might have been hindered because the blaze had ruined phone lines and communications towers.
The government declared three days of mourning and sent two army battalions to help the emergency services. The European Union said it would provide firefighting aircraft. France has offered three planes and Spain has sent two, authorities said.
Speaking in the Vatican, Pope Francis, who visited Portugal last month, mentioned the victims in his weekly address. "I am close to the dear people of Portugal, hit by a devastating fire which is raging in the forests around Pedrogao Grande, causing many victims and injuries. Let us pray in silence," he said.