Gum trees fuel huge Portugal bushfire that has left at least 24 dead

Driven by scorching winds and droughts, flames engulf the mountains in southern Portugal.

Driven by scorching winds and droughts, flames engulf the mountains in southern Portugal. Photo: AAP / Paulo Cunha

The latest in a series of forest fires to hit Portugal over recent years has killed at least 19 people, most trapped in cars that were caught in the blaze.

The wind-driven inferno which sparked is burning out of control and is already one of the deadliest forest fires in Portugal in decades.

The region hit hardest by the rolling inferno has been scorched by drought after being re-forested with pine plantations and non-native gum trees.

As in California, where the highly volatile imported eucalypts also have been blamed for fuelling huge fires, Portugal is coming to accept that it has unwittingly introduced a permanent and lethal hazard.

Environmental report studies have been warning for at least two decades that the bushfire threat would only get worse as gum trees spread from timber plantations.

“If unmanaged after  wildfires these fire-adapted species take full advantage of  the fire-response mechanisms and increase the area occupied,” the authors of a 2006 study noted.

Jorge Gomes, the secretary of state for internal affairs, said President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa was en route to the site of the tragedy.

The blaze on Saturday hit the mountainous area of Pedrogao Grande, 200km southeast of Lisbon, amid an intense heat wave and strong winds that fanned the fire later in the day.

“We have 19 confirmed deaths, all civilians,” Gomes said, adding that 20 people have been injured, including six firefighters, and two people were still missing.
-with wires

Topics: Bushfires
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