More than 20 dead from forest fires in central Portugal

Smoke has hampered airborne efforts, Gomes said.

Firefighters rest during a wildfire at Penela, Coimbra, central Portugal, on 18 June 2017.

The death toll could rise further as many people remain missing, he warned.

A lightning strike is believed to have sparked the blaze in the Pedrogao Grande area 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 one of the possible causes of the fires.

French President Emmanuel Macron said in a message published on Twitter: "Solidarity with Portugal, hit by bad fires". Many more residents are being evacuated.

Prime Minister Antonio Costa announced three days of mourning, set for Monday through Wednesday.

The European Union said it would provide firefighting aircraft.

On Sunday, Pope Francis led thousands of people in silent prayer for the victims of what he called the "devastating fire", while the Portuguese football team offered its "deepest sympathies to the families, friends and loved ones of the victims of the fires".

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The wave of forest fires in central Portugal, which broke out due to an intense heat wave, has claimed the lives of dozens of people. "Let's pray in silence".

According to the prime minister, just 11 fires are still active but he said the authorities were "particularly anxious about two of them".

Juncker wrote in the letter that "Our thoughts are with all the victims, their families and all the fearless soldiers of peace that in a very hard terrain and under challenging circumstances continue to fight this awful fire".

In one village of Nodeirinho, 11 residents have died, where state television RTP showed burned out cars and blackened houses.

"It does not seem real, it is out of this world..."

"This is a region that has had fires because of its forests, but we can not remember a tragedy of these proportions", Valdemar Alves, the mayor of Pedrógão Grande, was quoted as saying by the Associated Press agency. Five people - a child and four firefighters are in serious condition.

About 700 firefighters were still working on Sunday to contain the blaze, which erupted Saturday and spread amid temperatures that approached 104 degrees. Various local motorways were shut for safety reasons.

Spain dispatched two water-bombing planes on Sunday to aid the Portuguese fire service, Costa said. President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa tells the New York Times that firefighters are facing a flawless storm of "temperature, wind, and zero humidity".

  • Sonia Alvarado