A devastating forest fire in central Portugal that killed upwards of 60 people may have been started by a lightning strike, investigators say. At least 30 of the victims were motorists who became trapped in their cars when the inferno overtook a stretch of road.
According to officials, a lightning strike during a so-called dry thunderstorm likely sparked the blaze on Saturday. As temperatures in the area soared into the triple digits, investigators believe that it was warm enough for raindrops to evaporate before they hit the ground, which would not stop lightning activity from occurring.
Upwards of 350 soldiers and 700 firefighters were deployed to quash the blaze, which spread from the forested Pedrógão Grande area and consumed the roadway stretching between the villages of Figueiró dos Vinhos and Castanheira de Pêra.
While the official death toll currently stands at 61, that number is expected to rise as officials comb through the wreckage of the areas affected by the blaze.
“The dimensions of this fire have caused a human tragedy beyond any in our memory,” said Prime Minister Antonio Costa. “Something extraordinary has taken place and we have to wait for technicians to properly determine its causes.”
Costa declared three days of national mourning as firefighters work swiftly to rescue any survivors and mitigate the fire’s spread.
Summer wildfires are common in Portugal, but authorities warned of an increased risk due to a heat wave that has seen temperatures reach upwards of 100 degrees. High temperatures combined with low humidity and a dry landscape created a perfect storm for several pockets of wildfires to converge upon one another, aided by natural gorges and ravines that help fires spread.
Now, forestry management experts within Portugal and abroad are encouraging the country to reconfigure its forested landscape to be more resistant to wildfires. Such an approach would likely involve reversing a forestry policy that saw Portugal replace many of its pine trees with eucalyptus trees, which contain a highly-flammable oil.