Portugal in mourning as dozens killed in raging forest fires

A man on the balcony of a house looks up at a forest fire raging on a hillside above the village of Avelar central Portugal before sunrise Sunday

A raging forest fire in central Portugal killed 62 people, many of whom were trapped in their cars as flames swept across a road in the country's worst tragedy in living memory.

Soon after the incident took place, almost 600 firefighters and 160 vehicles were sent to to tackle the blaze, which broke out in the municipality of Pedrogao Grande which is about 50 kilometres from Coimbra.

Secretary of State for the Interior Jorge Gomes said 62 people burned to death, mostly trapped in their cars engulfed by flames in the Leiria region.

A huge wall of thick smoke and bright red flames towered over the top of trees near houses in the wooded region.

Coach Fernando Santos, Cristiano Ronaldo and the rest of the players released a statement saying "in this sad hour, we send our deepest sympathies to the families, friends and loved ones of the victims of the fires".

The number of deaths is expected to rise and according to CNN, 54 people have been injured including eight firefighters.

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Local television showed terrifying images of several people on a road trying to escape the intense smoke that had reduced visibility to a few metres.

Pope Francis led thousands of people in a moment of silent prayer for the victims of the fire. No information has yet been given on how the others were killed.

"France has offered three planes through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism and they will be quickly sent to assist the local emergency efforts", EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides said.

The fire, which has yet to be controlled, is already one of the deadliest forest fires in Portugal in decades.

The official also said that firefighting crews were having difficulties in battling the fire, which was "very violent" in at least two of its four fronts.

Spain dispatched two water-bombing planes on June 18 morning to aid the Portuguese fire service on the ground, Costa said.

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Antonio Costa tweeted his "deepest regret for the victims. and a word of encouragement and strength for all who help combat this scourge".

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy tweeted that he is "overwhelmed by the tragedy at Pedrogao Grande. The Portuguese people can count on our solidarity, support and care".

"The smoke cloud is very low, which does not allow helicopters and fire planes to work efficiently. but we're doing everything possible and impossible to put out this fire", Gomes said, adding that no villages were now at risk.

He said investigations are ongoing to determine the cause, but authorities believe the high temperatures may have played a part.

Thirty bodies were found inside cars, with another 17 next to the vehicles, on one road leading on to the IC8 motorway. It has been over 50 years since 25 Portuguese soldiers perished fighting wildfires in 1966.

According to the prime minister, just 11 fires are still active but he said the authorities were "particularly anxious about two of them".

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