Raging forest fires in central Portugal killed at least 57 people, many of them trapped in their cars as flames swept over a road, in what the prime minister on Sunday called "the biggest tragedy of human life that we have known in years." Nearly 60 other people were injured, including four firefighters and a seriously injured minor, Interior Ministry official Jorge Gomes told state broadcaster RTP. A lightning strike is believed to have sparked the blaze in the Pedrogao Grande area after investigators found a tree that was hit during a "dry thunderstorm," which are frequent when high temps evaporate falling water before it can reach the ground. "This is a region that has had fires because of its forests, but we cannot remember a tragedy of these proportions," said Valdemar Alves, mayor of Pedrogao Grande. "I am completely stunned by the number of deaths."
Authorities had previously said that 104-degree heat in recent days might have played a part in the inferno about 95 miles northeast of Lisbon. About 700 firefighters have been trying to put out the fires since Saturday, Gomes said. A huge wall of thick smoke and bright red flames towered over the top of trees near houses in the wooded region. Local resident Isabel Brandao told the AP that she had feared for her life. "Yesterday we saw the fire but thought it was very far. I never thought it would come to this side," she said. "At 3:30am, my mother-in-law woke me up quickly and we never went to sleep again." RTP showed terrifying images of several people on a road trying to escape the intense smoke that had reduced visibility to a question of a few yards. Prime Minister Antonio Costa said that firefighting crews were having difficulties in approaching the area because the fire was "very intense."