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.

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)