Portugal Forest Fires

How Survivors of Portugal's Deadliest Fire in Decades Saw Their Lives Turn to Ash

Dozens of people died in a fire that lasted for five days and destroyed an area the size of 30,000 football pitches.

by Cláudio Garcia; photos by Ricardo Graça
25 June 2017, 8:25pm

Alle Fotos: Ricardo Graça

A version of this article originally appeared in Jornal de Leiria and on VICE Portugal

On the afternoon of Saturday the 17th of June, a wildfire began spreading through Pedrógão Grande, a small county in central Portugal. The country's deadliest fire in decades continued to burn for five days – killing 64 people, injuring 200, and destroying an area the size of 30,000 football pitches.

According to the judiciary police, the fire started in the village of Escalos Fundeiros, in the north of the county, due to a dry thunderstorm, which produced lightening strong enough to rip a tree in half. The flames spread easily for miles thanks to a combination of 40 degree temperatures, very low levels of humidity and strong winds.

Some residents of Escalos Fundeiros do not believe the police's official account. "I didn't hear any thunderstorms," said Maria Rosa Onofre, 74. "This must have been a deliberate, criminal act." Jaime Marta Soares, President of the Portuguese Firemen's League, agreed, but he couldn't offer any proof to support his theory. The Portuguese Sea and Atmosphere Institute (IPMA) says it has recorded signs of a thunderstorm in Pedrógão Grande, but other experts say it's too early to know for sure what caused it.

The speed in which the fire spread through the hilly region took everyone by surprise. According to the emergency services, most of the deaths occurred on the first day. The villages of Pobrais, Nodeirinho and Verzea were hit the hardest, while 47 people died in their cars on the 236-1 motorway as they tried to escape.

In those early hours, eye-witnesses described how isolated villages appeared to be completely surrounded by flames, with no electricity, water or means of communication to get help. In the days that followed, the fire eventually spread across two more counties: Figueiró dos Vinhos and Castanheira de Pera as more and more villages were evacuated, with hundreds of people losing their homes.

As I walked through the village of Sobreiro, two days after the fire started, I could hear the screams of locals helplessly watching the firefighters try to save their homes. Everything seemed to be on fire as more and more teams of emergency responders arrived on the scene to find burned out cars, flattened electricity poles and acres of trees burned to the ground. The effort to search and identify victims was already under way.

"Let's see if anything can be saved," said Rodrigo Luís, who's father's timber business depends on the forest. Nearby, Aduzinda Féteira couldn't hide her distress as she discovered her farm had been completely destroyed.

In response to the tragedy, the Portuguese government declared three days of national mourning. "We've been through hell," said Pedrógão Grande's mayor, Valdemar Alves. "Pedrógão Grande and Figueiró dos Vinhos are areas that were already suffering from poverty and a lack of opportunities. Now, they've been reduced to ashes. We must find a way to rebuild – for better or worse, life must go on."

Scroll down for more photos of the devastating forest fire in Portugal.