Driving from Porto in the north on Monday, I entered a ravaged landscape of blackened ground that exhaled smoke and seemed to be struggling for breath. Every few miles, I passed burned-out carcasses of cars on the side of the road. In what remained of a door frame, fresh pink flowers were laid in tribute to one car’s victims.
As I approached signposts on secondary roads, they offered their own testament to the extent of the disaster: Many had been melted by the heat.
Already, the fatalities have made the wildfire the worst in half a century in a small country where deadly blazes have become increasingly severe and routine, as longstanding land management problems collide with changes in climate that produce hotter, drier summers.
On Monday, crews were still struggling to tame the deadly blaze in central Portugal, even as more than 2,000 firefighters battled separate fires around the country amid strong winds and scorching temperatures.
Given those circumstances and the country’s history, some were already beginning to question why Portugal had not done more sooner to improve its land practices and fire-warning systems, and whether the authorities did enough to inform people trying to escape the blaze.
“I understand that it’s very hard to control such a fire, but I don’t understand why it’s so hard to coordinate the movement of people,” said Aires Henriques, who ended up driving for several hours along back roads to circumvent the fire area.
He and his wife, Maria Lourdes, were driving home on Saturday afternoon to their village of Troviscais from Porto when a friend called to warn them about the blaze. The police stopped them on IC8, the road that crosses this area, and told them to take another route, without specifying which one.
While he knows the area well, he said, “We’ve got tourists and others who probably had no idea where they were going.”
For now, an atmosphere of national tragedy and mourning stifled much of the impulse for finger-pointing. Portugal’s political parties for the most part heeded a call by President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa to first deal with the emergency before discussing its circumstances.
“Now is the time for the authorities to act, not the time for politicians,” Pedro Passos Coelho, leader of the main center-right opposition party, said over the weekend.
Once the flames have been extinguished, however, there will no doubt be an investigation into why so many victims apparently died after finding themselves cut off, encircled by fire and stranded along roads they took while trying to flee by car.
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