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Portugal PM demands answers as deadly forest fires rage

Pedrógão Grande (Portugal) (AFP) – Portugal’s prime minister led calls Tuesday to find out why a highway now dubbed the “road of death” — where most of the 64 victims of a giant forest fire perished — had not been blocked off, as questions mounted over the disaster management response.

More than 1,000 firefighters were still battling to control the flames which broke out in the central Pedrogao Grande region at the weekend and spread at breakneck speed to neighbouring areas.

A civil protection spokesman told AFP that a firefighting plane crashed near the village of Ouzenda while battling the blaze, but his agency’s chief later denied the report.

“I confirm that no plane chartered by the civil protection authority… or in use across the country has crashed,” civil protection head Vitor Vaz Pinto told a news conference.

He added that the confusion could have been down to gas canisters exploding at the reported crash site, while refusing to rule out that a private aircraft could have gone down.

Spain, France and Italy have sent a total of 11 water bombers to help the operation.

Portugal’s Prime Minister Antonio Costa sought “immediate explanations” why the national 236 highway “had not been closed to traffic” and why it had been signalled by gendarmes as an alternative route after a nearby road had been sealed off, according to the Lusa national news agency.

Forty-seven of the 64 forest fire victims died on the N236 which has been branded the “road of death” or the “road of hell” by the local media.

Thirty of them burned to death in their cars, trapped by the flames.

A survivor told Portuguese television that gendarmes directed them to the N236 as an alternative to the nearby IC8 route which had been closed and which the gendarmes used themselves.

“When we arrived at the IC8, they told us we couldn’t pass and directed us towards the N236. We thought that the road was safe but it wasn’t,” said Maria de Fatima.

“We couldn’t see anything, we couldn’t even see the road, just…

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