A huge forest fire raging since Saturday in central Portugal has killed 90 people, most of them dying in their cars as they tried to flee. “The dimension of this fire was such that we don’t have memory of such a human tragedy,” Prime Minister Antonio Costa told us in Pedrogao Grande, the mountainous region about 200 km (125 miles) northeast of Lisbon. Most victims were caught in their vehicles on the road while fleeing flames that were destroying their homes. The prime minister told us the death toll could rise as firefighters inspected charred remains of some buildings in remote villages.
Wildfires have many beneficial effects on native vegetation, animals, and ecosystems that have evolved with fire. Many plant species depend on the effects of fire for growth and reproduction. Wildfires are common in climates that are sufficiently moist to allow the growth of vegetation but feature extended dry, hot periods. Such places include the vegetated areas of Australia and Southeast Asia, the veld in southern Africa, the fynbos in the Western Cape of South Africa, the forested areas of the United States and Canada, and the Mediterranean Basin.
High-severity wildfire creates complex early seral forest habitat, which often has higher species richness and diversity than unburned old forest. Plant and animal species in most types of North American forests evolved with fire, and many of these species depend on wildfires, and particularly high-severity fires, to reproduce and grow. Fire helps to return nutrients from plant matter back to soil, the heat from fire is necessary to the germination of certain types of seeds, and the snags (dead trees) and early successional forests created by high-severity fire create habitat conditions that are beneficial to wildlife. Early successional forests created by high-severity fire support some of the highest levels of native biodiversity found in temperate conifer forests. Post-fire logging has no ecological benefits and many negative impacts; the same is often true for post-fire seeding.
The most common direct human causes of wildfire ignition include arson, discarded cigarettes, power-line arcs, and sparks from equipment. Ignition of wildland fires via contact with hot rifle-bullet fragments is also possible under the right conditions. Wildfires can also be started in communities experiencing shifting cultivation, where land is cleared quickly and farmed until the soil loses fertility, and slash and burn clearing. Forested areas cleared by logging encourage the dominance of flammable grasses, and abandoned logging roads overgrown by vegetation may act as fire corridors. Annual grassland fires in southern Vietnam stem in part from the destruction of forested areas by US military herbicides, explosives, and mechanical land-clearing and -burning operations during the Vietnam War.
The most common cause of wildfires varies throughout the world. In Canada and northwest China, for example, lightning operates as the major source of ignition. In other parts of the world, human involvement is a major contributor. In Africa, Central America, Fiji, Mexico, New Zealand, South America, and Southeast Asia, wildfires can be attributed to human activities such as agriculture, animal husbandry, and land-conversion burning. In China and in the Mediterranean Basin, human carelessness is a major cause of wildfires. In the United States and Australia, the source of wildfires can be traced both to lightning strikes and to human activities, such as machinery sparks, cast-away cigarette butts, or arson. Coal seam fires burn in the thousands around the world, such as those in Burning Mountain, New South Wales; Centralia, Pennsylvania; and several coal-sustained fires in China. They can also flare up unexpectedly and ignite nearby flammable material.
Police told us a lightning strike on a tree probably caused the blaze on Saturday in a region hit by an intense heat wave and dry, gusty winds, which has fanned the flames.
The prime minister told us 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.
“What happened was cables and communications towers were destroyed by the fire, even their first replacements melted,” he told us. “But nothing compromised the firefighting efforts.”
Most communications have been restored, but Costa called on residents listen to the radio and heed any official advice.
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.
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.
Macron told us: France is in solidarity with Portugal, hit by terrible fires. Our thoughts are with victims. France makes its aid available to Portugal.
In one village of Nodeirinho, where 11 residents died, state television RTP showed burned out cars and blackened houses. Shocked residents said a whole family that was trying to flee their home in a car had been caught in a tornado of flames.
“It does not seem real, it is out of this world … It is a real inferno, we have never seen anything like that,” the mayor of Pedrogao Grande Valdemar Alves told us, adding that more than 20 villages had been affected.
Alongside 62 confirmed dead, another 54 people have been injured and taken to hospitals. Four are in a serious condition.
More than 600 firefighters are still battling the flames. Several local highways are shut for safety reasons.
The authorities told us very low smoke clouds prevented helicopters and fire planes dropping water on the flames efficiently for most of the day.
President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa visited the site at night and expressed his condolences. He told us that it was not possible to do more than what has been done in prevention and responding to the fire.
Some local residents told us they had been left without firefighters for hours as their homes burned. Many blamed poor forestry reserve planning and depopulation of remote villages that left many wooded areas untended.