Forest fires in Central Portugal have claimed the lives of 57 people and injured at least 59 others.
According to authorities, a large number of the casualties were reportedly trapped in their cars.
Interior Ministry official Jorge Gomes said that at least 16 people were killed when their vehicles were engulfed by flames and three others died from smoke inhalation.
Prime Minister Antonio Costa said that firefighters were experiencing difficulties due to the intensity of the blaze. He said, though the investigations are still underway, he believed that recent high temperatures may have also contributed to the fires.
Portugal was experiencing a heatwave on Saturday, with temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius in several regions.
On Sunday he referred to the disaster as “the biggest tragedy of human life that we have known in years.”
“This is a region that has had fires because of its forests, but we cannot remember a tragedy of these proportions,” added Valdemar Alves, mayor of Pedrogao Grande. “I am completely stunned by the number of deaths.”
Spanish state television showed images from Portugal of several people on a road trying to escape the intense smoke, that had reduced visibility to only a few meters.
Local resident Isabel Brandao told the media 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 3:30 a.m., my mother-in-law woke me up quickly and we never went to sleep again. We were afraid the fire would reach us.”
Prime Minister Costa declared that two water-bombing planes were dispatched to help the fire service.
Costa also warned, while at the Civil Protection headquarters, that “The number of fatalities could still rise. The priority now is to save those people who could still be in danger.”
Overnight, about 60 forest fires were ignited across the country, eliciting 1,700 firefighters to battle to put them out.