More than 4,000 hectares of forest are on fire in Galicia due to high temperatures and drought
The emergency decision, affecting all districts north of the River Tagus, came just three months after devastating forest fires which broke out in the central town of Pedrogao Grande killed 64 people and injured more than 250.
The official death toll early this morning stood at six – but rose later on to 12 – and included a 19-year-old pregnant woman killed as she hit another car while trying to flee the flames.
Respected daily Correio da Manha put the number of deaths from the fires, which with 523 blazes registered yesterday marked a record for this year, at “at least 20.”
Respected TV station SIC said the number of fatalities stood at 10 before the official death toll rose from six to 12.
Portuguese PM Antonio Costa reacted to the new tragedy by declaring a state of national calamity north of the Tagus to ensure the mobilisation of more firefighters to tackle the blazes.
Predicting a very difficult day and saying the number of people who were injured and unaccounted meant he couldn’t rule out more deaths, he added: “Situations like this are likely to repeat themselves. There are no magic solutions.”
Town hall sources told respected Portuguese daily Expresso five people alone had died in Vouzela, a two-hour drive north of Pedrogao Grande where the devastating June 17 wildfires started.
Twelve of the 38 people being treated for burns at nearby Viseu Hospital were described as “serious.”
A fire burns near homes in Chandebrito village, Galicia, Spain
We are dealing with deliberately-started fires by people who know what to burn, how to burn it and the places to pick
Two people in Penacova near the university city of Coimbra and two in Oliveira do Hospital a 45-minute drive east were also said to be among the dead.
Passengers on a coach covering the route between Viseu and Coimbra told of their brush with death after being surrounded by flames and having to abandon the vehicle near Penacova with the help of firefighters.
Ema Fonseca, a university student who was returning to Coimbra for lessons, said: “The coach was full with some 48 people on board.
“Suddenly everything went black and a few miles afterwards all we saw were flames.
“The heat inside the coach was unbearable. We began to shout and the coach began to shake. I thought I was going to die.”
Twenty-five roads in the north and centre of the country remained closed to traffic this morning because of the fires.
A firefighter battles to extinguish a fire in Vigo, Galicia
Portugal’s Secretary of State of Internal Administration Jorge Gomes appealed for international help to combat the wildfires, which are being tackled by nearly 6,000 people using more than 1,780 vehicles.
Spain’s north-west region of Galicia which borders northern Portugal, was also badly affected with three deaths recorded during a nightmare day yesterday.
Some of the fires affecting Spain’s north-west region crossed the border from Portugal.
The three Spanish casualties were two women engulfed by flames after being trapped in their van in Nigran 10 miles south of Vigo, and an elderly man who died in an animal pen.
Seventeen of the 200 separate blazes that broke out over the weekend remained active this morning near populated areas.
Galician President Alberto Nunez Feijoo described the situation as “critical”, although light rain was aiding things following perfect conditions for the wildfires of strong winds brought in by the tail-end of Hurricane Ophelia and high temperatures after a period of draught.
He also pointed the finger at arsonists he said had started many of the fires.
Claiming firefighters had been tackling “homicide incendiary activity” in the worst possible weather conditions, the Galician leader said: “We are dealing with deliberately-started fires by people who know what to burn, how to burn it and the places to pick.”
Distressing footage show panicked locals driving along smoke-filled roads with walls of flames either side.
In the coastal resort town of Baiona in southern Galicia, people were filmed abandoning their homes as they were surrounded by fire.
The city of Vigo, where locals in a human chain were pictured using buckets of water to tackle flames encroaching on their houses, was one of the worst affected.
Several schools there cancelled classes today with the University of Vigo suspending all activity because of the “emergency situation.”
Police tweeted alongside a video of a motorcyclist racing away from a wildfire approaching a normally-busy roundabout: “Galicia is burning and silence is complicit with those who burn it.
“If you know who did it, ring the emergency number and tell us.”