21 Jun 2017

Portugal fires: confusion over plane crash claim

9:29 am on 21 June 2017

Reports that a firefighting plane crashed during an operation to tackle huge blazes in central Portugal have been denied by the country's civil protection authority.

Local media had earlier reported a Canadair plane had crashed near the central Pedrogao Grande area.

A forest in flames near the village of Mega Fundeira, Portugal, on 18 June.

Trees in flame near the village of Mega Fundeira, Portugal. Photo: AFP

Firefighters have struggled to gain complete control over the country's deadliest forest fire on record, which killed 64 people at the weekend.

Authorities said the fire in the mountainous region, which killed many people in their cars as they tried to escape, was 85 percent under control after more than 1000 firefighters worked overnight.

About 160 people were injured in the blaze, about 200km northeast of the capital Lisbon.

Victor Vaz Pinto, commander of the civil protection agency, said a helicopter had been sent out to search for the aircraft reported to have crashed but had found nothing.

"I have no information that any airplane working for civil protection has crashed," said Mr Vaz Pinto, adding that an explosion heard by many in the vicinity may have been caused by abandoned gas bottles.

A Reuters photographer in the area said he saw a plane fly out of view and shortly afterwards he heard an explosion.

Civil protection officials say they expect the blazes to be under control soon, but warn that soaring temperatures are hampering efforts. More than 1000 firefighters on the ground and aircraft from several countries are battling the blazes.

Meanwhile, a separate fire, in the village of Gois further north, was very worrying, Victor Vaz Pinto, commander of the civil protection agency, said.

A firefighter walks close to a wildfire in Carvalho, near Pampilhosa da Serra, on June 19, 2017.

A firefighter walks close to a wildfire in Carvalho, near Pampilhosa da Serra. Photo: AFP

Prime Minister Antonio Costa said at the weekend the deadly blaze was the biggest human tragedy in Portugal in living memory.

With reports and witnesses' accounts speaking of a slow response by the emergency services to the fire, Mr Costa questioned the effectiveness of an emergency response system.

Officials have said communications were knocked out in the initial fierce fires when most people died, affecting mobile and fixed telephone networks.

Mr Costa asked the national civil protection agency, the weather institute and police for a report on what went wrong, and also asked why a road, where many people died in their cars, had not been closed off.

Data from the European Forest Fire Information System showed that an area of more than 30,000 hectares had burned in the past seven days, making it the largest ever fire in Portugal.

- Reuters

A firefighter looks on as he works to extinguish a wildfire in Carvalho, next to Pampilhosa da Serra.

Photo: AFP