Portugal Forest Fires: 61 Dead; PM Calls Disaster a ‘Tragedy’

  • Macron marches on as his party wins large majority in French parliament

Raging forest fires in central Portugal killed at least 61 people, many of them dying because they were trapped in their cars when flames swept over a road.

Portugal declared three days of national mourning on Sunday as Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa called the disaster “the biggest tragedy of human life that we have known in years.”

Interior Ministry official Jorge Gomes told state broadcaster RTP that the number of victims from the flames and smoke inhalation has reached 60, while another two people perished in a traffic accident related to the fires.

The death toll was earlier on Sunday reported at 62 people, but Portugal Prime Minister Antonio Costa later reduced it to 61 because authorities allegedly counted one victim twice.

The fatalities occurred in the Pedrogao Grande area, about 95 miles northeast of Lisbon, where about 600 firefighters have been trying to put out the fires since Saturday, Gomes said.

Gomes said that at least 16 people were killed when their vehicles were engulfed by flames on a road between the towns of Figueiro dos Vinhos and Castanheira de Pera.

A lightning strike is believed to have sparked the blaze after investigators found a tree that was hit during a “dry thunderstorm,” the head of the national judicial police told Portuguese media.

Dry thunderstorms are frequent when falling water evaporates before reaching the ground because of high temperatures. Portugal, like most southern European countries, is prone to forest fires in the dry summer months.

A huge wall of thick smoke and bright red flames towered over the top of trees near houses in the wooded region.

In the meantime, the French president Emmanuel Macron’s new centrist movement has won a large majority in the French parliament, according to the first official results on Sunday night.

Macron’s fledgling “neither right nor left” political movement, La République en Marche (La REM), and its smaller centrist ally Democratic Movement (MoDem) needed 289 seats to have an absolute majority in parliament; according to exit polls they were on track to take around 361 seats in the 577-seat national assembly.

The clear majority will hand the new president a relatively free rein to implement his plans to change French labour law, and overhaul unemployment benefits and pensions.

But the results were tempered by a record low turnout of around 43%. Abstention was particularly high in low-income areas, reopening the debate about France’s social divide.

The traditional right and left parties that had dominated parliament and government for decades saw their presence in the assembly shrink significantly, confirming the redrawing of the French political landscape that began when the Socialists and the rightwing Républicains were knocked out in the first round of spring’s presidential election.

The French right, which only a year ago had believed the presidential and parliamentary elections impossible to lose, was on track for its worst parliamentary score in France’s postwar Fifth Republic. Les Républicains and its allies were forecast to see their number of seats shrink to around 125 – low, but higher than was forecast after the poor first-round showing last week.

The Socialist party was the biggest loser, expecting to shed more than 200 seats and hold only around 34 seats – again, better than forecast, but still a drubbing. The party’s leader, Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, immediately stood down.

The scale of Macron’s absolute majority shows the extent to which the new president, a newcomer to party politics, has managed to transform the French political landscape in record time. Sixteen months ago, his LREM movement did not exist. Now it is set to dominate legislation and win a vast injection of subsidies.

Macron’s prime minister Edouard Philippe said: “Through this vote, the French people have showed they preferred hope to anger, optimism to pessimism, confidence to closing in on oneself.” He added: “Abstention is never good news for democracy and the low turnout meant the government had “an ardent obligation to succeed.”

Macron’s government spokesman Christophe Castaner, who was elected to parliament, said: “The French people have given us a clear majority, but they didn’t want to give us a blank cheque. It’s a responsibility. The real victory will be in five years time when things will have really changed.”

He said: “There is a strong majority, there’s a will for things to change.”

The far-right Front National, which currently has two seats in parliament, was predicted to win up to eight seats, better than its first-round showing had indicated.

The party said its leader, Marine Le Pen, had won a seat in the northern, former coal-mining heartlands around Hénin-Beaumont in the Pas-de-Calais. She will sit in parliament for the first time after four attempts in the past to win a seat.

NBC with additional report from Guardian