Portuguese shocked at deadly forest fires, struggle to understand

PEDROGAO GRANDE, Portugal, June 19 (Reuters) - The most devastating Portuguese forest fire in decades has left locals in the town of Pedrogao Grande struggling to understand how 62 people died as they tried to flee the inferno.

"Catastrophe, that is the only word for it," said Fernando Antonio Serra Alves Bernardo, 59, who owns the Lido cafe in the town at the center of the disaster. "This was like a war zone."

Locals and experts alike talk of an unholy combination of extremely hot weather, an unusually dry year and ferocious winds that created a sort of hurricane of fire. Many of those who died burnt in their cars as they fled.

"I believe in witches, I believe in anything now," said one man who had briefly fled from his village over the weekend.

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Deadly forest fire in Portugal
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Deadly forest fire in Portugal
A firefighter watches a forest fire near the village of Fato, central Portugal, June 18, 2017. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante
Firefightes work to put out a forest fire near the village of Fato, central Portugal, June 18, 2017. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante
A Red Cross worker rests outside a relief centre for people affected by a forest fire in Figueiro dos Vinhos, Portugal, June 19, 2017. REUTERS/Miguel Vidal
Firefightes work to put out a forest fire near the village of Fato, central Portugal, June 18, 2017. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante
A firefighting helicopter works to put out a forest fire in Mendeira, Portugal June 19, 2017. REUTERS/Miguel Vidal
A burned van and burned trees are seen in a local road following a forest fire outside Pedrogao Grande, Portugal June 19, 2017. REUTERS/Miguel Vidal
Firefighters work to put out a forest fire in Carvalho, near Gois, Portugal June 19, 2017. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante
Firefighters work to put out a forest fire in Carvalho, near Gois, Portugal June 19, 2017. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante
Firefighters work to put out a forest fire in Carvalho, near Gois, Portugal June 19, 2017. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante
A burned traffic signs and burned trees are seen in a local road following a forest fire outside Pedrogao Grande, Portugal June 19, 2017. REUTERS/Miguel Vidal
A forest fire approaches houses in the village of Atalaia Cimeira near Pedrogao Grande, central Portugal June 18, 2017. REUTERS/Guillermo Martinez
Firefighters work to put out a forest fire near the village of Fato, central Portugal, June 18, 2017. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante
Volunteers unload food and water at a fire station in Pedrogao Grande, central Portugal, June 18, 2017. REUTERS/Miguel Vidal
A helicopter overfly a wildfire in Carvalho, next to Pampilhosa da Serra, on June 19, 2017. More than 1,000 firefighters are still trying to control the huge forest fire that erupted on June 17, 2017 in central Portugal killing at least 62 people and injuring 62 more, many trapped in their cars by the flames, causing a great deal of emotion in the country. / AFP PHOTO / MIGUEL RIOPA (Photo credit should read MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP/Getty Images)
Locals look at a wildfire in Carvalho, next to Pampilhosa da Serra, on June 19, 2017. More than 1,000 firefighters are still trying to control the huge forest fire that erupted on June 17, 2017 in central Portugal killing at least 62 people and injuring 62 more, many trapped in their cars by the flames, causing a great deal of emotion in the country. / AFP PHOTO / MIGUEL RIOPA (Photo credit should read MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP/Getty Images)
Firefighters and soldiers work to extinguish a wildfire in Carvalho, next to Pampilhosa da Serra, on June 19, 2017. More than 1,000 firefighters are still trying to control the huge forest fire that erupted on June 17, 2017 in central Portugal killing at least 62 people and injuring 62 more, many trapped in their cars by the flames, causing a great deal of emotion in the country. / AFP PHOTO / MIGUEL RIOPA (Photo credit should read MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP/Getty Images)
A helicopter drops water over a wildfire in Carvalho, next to Pampilhosa da Serra, on June 19, 2017. More than 1,000 firefighters are still trying to control the huge forest fire that erupted on June 17, 2017 in central Portugal killing at least 62 people and injuring 62 more, many trapped in their cars by the flames, causing a great deal of emotion in the country. / AFP PHOTO / MIGUEL RIOPA (Photo credit should read MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP/Getty Images)
Picture shows a burnt house whose owner died, destroyed during a wildfire at Pobrais, Pedrogao Grande on June 19, 2017. More than 1,000 firefighters are still trying to control the huge forest fire that erupted on June 17, 2017 in central Portugal killing at least 62 people and injuring 62 more, many trapped in their cars by the flames, causing a great deal of emotion in the country. / AFP PHOTO / PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA (Photo credit should read PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP/Getty Images)
LEIRIA, PORTUGAL - JUNE 19: A Portuguese soldier jumps from a roof after checking the property didn't contain any human remains after a wildfire took dozens of lives on June 19, 2017 near Castanheira de Pera, in Leiria district, Portugal. On Saturday night, a forest fire became uncontrollable in the Leiria district, killing at least 62 people and leaving many injured. Some of the victims died inside their cars as they tried to flee the area. (Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)
LEIRIA, PORTUGAL - JUNE 19: Trees burn after a wildfire took dozens of lives on June 19, 2017 near Castanheira de Pera, in Leiria district, Portugal. On Saturday night, a forest fire became uncontrollable in the Leiria district, killing at least 62 people and leaving many injured. Some of the victims died inside their cars as they tried to flee the area. (Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A picture taken on June 19, 2017 shows an area devastated by a wildfire close to the village of Figueiro dos Vinhos. More than 1,000 firefighters are still trying to control the huge forest fire that erupted on June 17, 2017 in central Portugal killing at least 62 people and injuring 62 more, many trapped in their cars by the flames, causing a great deal of emotion in the country. / AFP PHOTO / MIGUEL RIOPA (Photo credit should read MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on June 19, 2017 shows wreckage of a garage in an area devastated by a wildfire close to the village of Figueiro dos Vinhos. More than 1,000 firefighters are still trying to control the huge forest fire that erupted on June 17, 2017 in central Portugal killing at least 62 people and injuring 62 more, many trapped in their cars by the flames, causing a great deal of emotion in the country. / AFP PHOTO / MIGUEL RIOPA (Photo credit should read MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP/Getty Images)
Firefighters rest between their trucks, close to the village of Aguda, on June 19, 2017. More than 1,000 firefighters are still trying to control the huge forest fire that erupted on June 17, 2017 in central Portugal killing at least 62 people and injuring 62 more, many trapped in their cars by the flames, causing a great deal of emotion in the country. / AFP PHOTO / MIGUEL RIOPA (Photo credit should read MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP/Getty Images)
People who evacuated from their homes after a forest fire sleep outside an evacuation centre in Pedrogao Grande, central Portugal, June 18, 2017. REUTERS/Miguel Vidal
Burned cars are seen on a local road during a forest fire near Pedrogao Grande, Portugal June 18, 2017. REUTERS/Guillermo Martinez
Villagers sit outdoors as a forest fire burns near the village of Fato, central Portugal, June 18, 2017. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante
A fire fighting plane passes smoke as it pulls up from the Zezere River after picking up water to put out forest fires in the area near Pedrogao Grande, June 18, 2017. REUTERS/Axel Bugge
A burned car is moved onto a towing truck during a forest fire near Pedrogao Grande, Portugal June 18, 2017. REUTERS/Guillermo Martinez
People look at fire and smoke during a forest fire in Pedrogao Grande, in central Portugal, June 18, 2017. REUTERS/Miguel Vidal
A burnt house is seen during a forest fire in Pedrogao Grande, in central Portugal, June 18, 2017. REUTERS/Miguel Vidal
A burned car and burned trees are seen during a forest fire near Pedrogao Grande, Portugal June 18, 2017. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante
An ambulance drives past a burned car during a forest fire in Figueiro dos Vinhos, Portugal June 18, 2017. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante
Firefighters take a break to watch planes dump water on a forest fire in Mendeira, Portugal June 19, 2017. REUTERS/Miguel Vidal
A firefighting plane dumps water on a forest fire in Mendeira, Portugal June 19, 2017. REUTERS/Miguel Vidal TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Local residents are evacuated during a forest fire from the village of Derreada Cimeira, Portugal June 18, 2017. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante
Fire and smoke is seen on the IC8 motorway during a forest fire near Pedrogao Grande, in central Portugal, June 18, 2017. REUTERS/Miguel Vidal
Smoke rises from a forest fire, seen from the village of Mourisco in central Portugal, June 17, 2017. REUTERS/Axel Bugge
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A policeman stands near a victim of a forest fire on the IC8 motorway near Pedrogao Grande, in central Portugal, June 18, 2017. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante TEMPLATE OUT
A firefighter carries a hose at Facal in Pedrogao Grande on June 19, 2017. More than 1,000 firefighters are still trying to control the huge forest fire that erupted on June 17, 2017 in central Portugal killing at least 62 people and injuring 62 more, many trapped in their cars by the flames, causing a great deal of emotion in the country. / AFP PHOTO / PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA (Photo credit should read PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP/Getty Images)
Locals use buckets trying to extinguish a wildfire in Atalaia Fundeira near Cernache do Bonjardin on June 19, 2017. More than 1,000 firefighters are still trying to control the huge forest fire that erupted on June 17, 2017 in central Portugal killing at least 62 people and injuring 62 more, many trapped in their cars by the flames, causing a great deal of emotion in the country. / AFP PHOTO / FRANCISCO LEONG (Photo credit should read FRANCISCO LEONG/AFP/Getty Images)
LEIRIA, PORTUGAL - JUNE 19: Two goats stand next to burnt cars after a wildfire took dozens of lives on June 19, 2017 near Castanheira de Pera, in Leiria district, Portugal. On Saturday night, a forest fire became uncontrollable in the Leiria district, killing at least 62 people and leaving many injured. Some of the victims died inside their cars as they tried to flee the area. (Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)
LEIRIA, PORTUGAL - JUNE 19: A firefighter battles a fire after a wildfire took dozens of lives on June 19, 2017 in small village near Pedrogao Grande, in Leiria district, Portugal. On Saturday night, a forest fire became uncontrollable in the Leiria district, killing at least 62 people and leaving many injured. Some of the victims died inside their cars as they tried to flee the area. (Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)
LEIRIA, PORTUGAL - JUNE 19: A plane battles a fire from the air after a wildfire took dozens of lives on June 19, 2017 near Pedrogao Grande, in Leiria district, Portugal. On Saturday night, a forest fire became uncontrollable in the Leiria district, killing at least 62 people and leaving many injured. Some of the victims died inside their cars as they tried to flee the area. (Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)
LEIRIA, PORTUGAL - JUNE 19: A bucket with resin remains in a tree after a wildfire took dozens of lives on June 19, 2017 near Castanheira de Pera, in Leiria district, Portugal. On Saturday night, a forest fire became uncontrollable in the Leiria district, killing at least 62 people and leaving many injured. Some of the victims died inside their cars as they tried to flee the area. (Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)
A picture taken on June 18, 2017 shows the village of Campelo after a wildfire, from Figueiro dos Vinhos. Portugal declared three days of national mourning from June 18, 2017 after the most deadly forest fire in its recent history, raging through the centre of the country. The fire, which broke out June 17, 2017 in the Pedrogao Grande district, had killed at least 62 people and injured more than 50, according to the latest official update by Sunday afternoon. / AFP PHOTO / PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA (Photo credit should read PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP/Getty Images)
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The most intense fires broke out on Saturday, but huge blazes still raged on Monday. The blazes may not die out until cooler weather arrives, possibly by the end of the week. More than 1,000 firemen are still working to put out the flames .

"It seems there was a lightning strike this time," said Norwyn Cole, a Briton who owns a house in the area he evacuated for a few hours on Sunday night. "The magnitude of this is on a completely different scale to what I have seen before."

Hundreds of people have been evacuated to camps set up by the army in Pedrogao Grande. On the main approach into town are miles of burnt, smoldering forest. Every second car on the roads is an ambulance, a fire engine or a police car.

Some locals blame the fires on the gradual replacement of pine and oak forests by highly combustible eucalyptus, which has been grown in this region by the paper and pulp industry. Others say the fires flared up so quickly because landowners hadn't obeyed the law and cleared their plots of undergrowth.

The deaths, the most in memory caused by forest fires in Portugal, have also shown shortcomings in communication systems to evacuate people from villages.

"It's still hard to identify what failed, but it's a bit of everything," said Xavier Viegas, an expert on forest fires in Portugal. "Obviously, certain things that should have been done had not been done - especially in terms of communicating with the population, telling them about the danger levels, areas to be avoided."

Other countries prone to forest fires have systems in place to warn people of danger. Australia, for example, revised its warning system after fires killed 173 people in 2009, and now uses text messages and emergency broadcasts to warn people.

"There's an urgent need to organize that kind of alerting," Viegas said. "Here, at best, someone from the parish council would go knocking on doors telling people to leave."

Armindo Antonio, 67, was evacuated with his family on Sunday evening by civil protection workers who came to his village. He has no idea when he can go back and said he had received no information from authorities.

"All of this is so difficult to understand," said Antonio, whose five family members had been housed in a packed old-age home with other evacuees. "It could have been our village."

One thing everyone agrees on: Portugal's volunteer firemen corps are the heroes in the tragedy.

"The human warmth and kindness we received these past days is the only thing that kept us going and gave us pride," read a message from the firemen hanging in a local shop.

(Additional reporting by Andrei Khalip, editing by Larry King)

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