doc

Survivors have emerged with stories of leaping into water tanks and other dramatic escapes from the deadly forest fires scorching central Portugal.

Authorities have come under mounting criticism for not doing more to prevent the country’s deadliest natural disaster in decades.

More than 2,700 firefighters are still battling to contain several major wildfires in the area north-east of Lisbon, where one blaze that began on Saturday killed 62 people, many of them as they tried to flee the flames in their cars.

Water-dropping planes from Spain, France and Italy arrived as part of a European Union co-operation programme but they were grounded in some places because thick smoke limited visibility, officials said.

That left firefighters – backed by fire engines and bulldozers – to do the heavy work on the ground in temperatures that approached 40C (104F).

Firefighters brought some of the blazes under control, but other wildfires still raced through inaccessible parts of the area’s steep hills, the Civil Protection Agency said.

The fires spread quickly due to hot weather, strong winds and dry woodland (Paulo Duarte/AP)The fires spread quickly due to hot weather, strong winds and dry woodland (Paulo Duarte/AP)

Portugal is observing three days of national mourning after the deaths on Saturday night around the town of Pedrogao Grande, 150 kilometres (90 miles) north of Lisbon.

Scorching weather, as well as strong winds and woods that are bone dry after weeks with little rain, fuelled the blazes.

Villages dot the landscape, much of it now scorched.

Forest fires near the village of Figueiro dos Vinhos, central Portugal (Paulo Duarte/AP)Forest fires near the village of Figueiro dos Vinhos, central Portugal (Paulo Duarte/AP)

In Nodeirinho, a hillside village of a few dozen people, 84-year-old Marta da Conceicao said residents called the fire services more than 20 times for help on Saturday.

“Nobody came. They were up in the mountain or somewhere else,” she said. “Here it was up to God and the people.”

As the flames licked at her, burning her leg, she and her elderly neighbours survived by jumping into a water storage tank.

Wildfires are an annual scourge in Portugal (Paulo Duarte/AP)Wildfires are an annual scourge in Portugal (Paulo Duarte/AP)

A British man living nearby also had a hair-raising escape. Daniel Starling had jumped in his car and raced away as the flames bore down.

He came across a family of four elderly people and picked them up.

Mr Starling said he drove around fallen trees and even off the road in his quest to reach safety.

“We stopped at one point, because we did not know where to go, because there were flames everywhere. But I just carried on the only way that I knew. (It was) just flames over the car and the family and me screaming,” said the 56-year-old, from Norwich. They stopped when they came to a policeman at a junction.

“The family,” Mr Starling said, “got out and they were kissing the car.”

Officials said 47 of the dead in Saturday night’s blaze died on a road as they fled the flames.