Portuguese PM asks emergency services for answers after 64 die in forest fire

Reuters News
Posted: Jun 20, 2017 10:52 AM

By Miguel Pereira

AVELAR, Portugal (Reuters) - Firefighters struggled on Tuesday to gain complete control over Portugal's deadliest forest fire on record which killed 64 people at the weekend, as Prime Minister Antonio Costa questioned the effectiveness of an emergency response system.

Authorities said the fire in the mountainous region of Pedrogao Grande, which killed many people in their cars as they tried to flee the blaze, was 85 percent under control after more than 1,000 firefighters toiled overnight.

About 160 other people were injured in the blaze, about 200 km (125 miles) northeast of the capital Lisbon, and which Costa said at the weekend was the biggest human tragedy in Portugal in living memory.

Meanwhile, a separate fire, in the village of Gois further north, was very worrying, Victor Vaz Pinto, commander of the civil protection agency, said.

With reports and witnesses' accounts speaking of a slow response by the emergency services to the fire, which struck rapidly on Saturday, Costa asked authorities for a report on what went wrong.

"Why, for how long and what impact was there on the planning, command and execution of operations if your very systems were not working? What was done to establish alternative connections?" Costa asked of the emergency services, according to the state news agency Lusa.

Costa, who sought an explanation from the national civil protection agency, the weather institute and police, also asked why a road, where many people died in their cars, had not been closed off.

Data from the European Forest Fire Information System showed that an area of more than 30,000 hectares had burned in the past seven days, making it the largest ever fire in Portugal.

The area burnt is nearly three times bigger than Lisbon and means the relatively small country accounts for more than a quarter of all fires in the entire European Union this year, the data showed.(https://ec.europa.eu/jrc/en/scientific-tool/current-situation-european-forest-fire-information-system)

The traditionally Catholic country holds its third day of mourning for the victims on Tuesday, after which demands for answers are likely to rise.

Assuncao Cristas, leader of the center-right CDS-PP opposition party said the country was still in mourning, but after that "will come the time, in parliament, when all questions will be asked."

Officials have said communications were knocked out in the initial fierce fires when most people died, affecting mobile and fixed telephone networks.

(Writing by Axel Bugge; Editing by Richard Balmforth)