More Than 60 Dead As Vast Wildfire Sweeps Across Portugal

Jun 19, 2017
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

A forest fire has killed at least 62 people in central Portugal. It's the deadliest natural disaster there in living memory, and it is not over yet. More than 2,000 firefighters are still battling the fire. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Residents pitch in with garden rakes and buckets of water as firefighters battle the fire on four fronts. It broke out on a holiday weekend amid a heat wave in a rural area famous for lush forests and reservoirs perfect for swimming. Most of those killed were trapped in their cars on a single road 95 miles northeast of Lisbon. A local newspaper headline calls it the saddest street in Portugal. The body of a 4-year-old child was among the first to be identified. Nicole Hayes lives nearby with her partner and 7-month-old baby, but she happened to be in the U.K. for her grandmother's funeral when lightning sparked the fire.

NICOLE HAYES: The road that we usually use as our main exit was the road that the fatalities happened on. It's overwhelming. There's a very high possibility that we would have been one of those families taken by the fire.

FRAYER: She's now returned to Portugal. She's learned her house is still standing, but she can't get to it. Over Skype, she describes the scene even at a relative's house outside the fire zone.

HAYES: There's still smoke clouds. You can smell it. And the sky was aglow. The swimming pool was full of ash and debris. And we're nearly 40 minutes away here. And that's how far it's traveled.

FRAYER: Forest fires happen every summer in Portugal, but Hayes says fire education is lacking.

HAYES: There are sirens, but these sirens go off so frequently that we have become complacent to them. And it was so easy for so many people to leave it till the last minute to escape.

FRAYER: As Portuguese move to cities for work, the countryside has been taken over by large eucalyptus plantations, a cash crop for paper. Environmentalists say it's a recipe for disaster.

JOAO BRANCO: Our climate is like California. It's normal to have fires here. But with the introduction of the eucalyptus, they have a lot of material to burn.

FRAYER: Environmentalist Joao Branco spoke by phone from his car en route to the fire zone. He says eucalyptus trees have especially flammable bark which flies off when they burn, igniting new fires. The Portuguese government has pledged to ban new eucalyptus plantations, but has not done so yet.

BRANCO: The government was negligent. Everybody knew this may happen. It was a matter of time.

FRAYER: Visiting the fire lines, Portugal's president told reporters nothing more could have been done to prevent and respond to the fires. Fire fighters are among the wounded. Local schools are closed indefinitely, and Portugal is observing three days of national mourning. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Elvas, Portugal.

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