More than 20 dead from forest fires in central Portugal

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More than 1,000 firefighters were yesterday still battling a giant forest fire that swept through central Portugal at the weekend, killing at least 62 people.

"It is hard to say if they were fleeing the flames or were taken by surprise", Gomes said, speaking of the dead.Dry thunderstorms were thought to have been the cause of the fatal blaze, according to the prime minister. Nearly 24 hours after Saturday night's deaths, the blaze was still raging across the forested hills of central Portugal. Police and rescuers were searching the fire-struck areas for more bodies.

The country has declared three days of mourning for the victims.

Mostly people were burned to death after being trapped in their cars which were engulfed by flames in the Leiria region.

"Although most of the wildfires in Europe are ignited by humans (either accidentally or intentionally), it is widely recognized that weather conditions and the accumulation of fuel play dominant roles in affecting the changes in fire risk over time", it said. Local reports said a third of the population had lost their lives, many as they tried to escape the fire. In it, falling rain evaporates before reaching the ground because of high temperatures, but lightning from the high cumulonimbus clouds reaches the ground.

"It's the biggest tragedy in recent years", said Portugal's Prime Minister António Costa. "Something extraordinary has taken place and we have to wait for experts to properly determine its causes".

He also warned Sunday that the death toll would likely rise. There are concerns strong winds could help spread the blaze further.

The fire, which Prime Minister Antonio Costa called, "a dimension of human tragedy that we can not remember", started Saturday and was still burning as of Sunday afternoon, requiring the attention of around 1,600 firefighters over the weekend.

In this image made available by the Spanish Airforce on Sunday June 18, 2017, a Spanish firefighting plane flies over the fires in Pedrogao Grande, Portugal.

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Portugal battles forest fires every summer but rarely those that cause such significant loss of life. "I thought the end of the world had come", said Maria de Fatima Nunes, a survivor.

Brandao said that "at 3:30 a.m.my mother-in-law woke me up quickly and we never went to sleep again".

Authorities were overwhelmed with food and water donations for those affected and the emergency services working in the areas near Pedrogao Grande, in central Portugal. "The magnitude of this is on a completely different scale to what I have seen before".

Hundreds of firefighters are continuing to tackle the blaze on several fronts.

Gomes gave a grim description of the deaths to RTP.

Secretary of State for the Interior Jorge Gomes said that most had died from smoke inhalation and burns, while two were killed in a road accident related to the fires.

Officials said 47 of the dead in Saturday night's blaze died on a road as they fled the flames.

Four firefighters are among the 54 people injured in the fire, which is raging in several parts of a mountainous area some 200km north-east of the capital Lisbon.

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