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A catastrophic wildfire believed to be caused by a dry thunderstorm has killed more than 62 people near Pedrógão Grande, central Portugal early Sunday, June 18, 2017. Most of them died in cars while trying to escape, officials said. Local media said several houses were destroyed and more than 60 people injured, among them several firefighters. The death toll is expected to increase.

"This is a region that has had fires because of its forests, but we cannot remember a tragedy of these proportions," Valdemar Alves, the mayor of Pedrógão Grande, was quoted as saying by the Associated Press agency.

Secretary of State for the Interior Jorge Gomes said the flames spread with great violence on four fronts near Pedrógão Grande, 150 km (93 miles) northeast of Lisbon.

"Most of those who died were found inside cars, with at least 17 next to the vehicles, on one road leading on to the IC8 motorway. Another 11 died in a village next to the motorway," Gomes said. The road was reportedly completely destroyed, melted.

Officials suggested that the fire was caused by a dry thunderstorm, a storm that produces lightning strikes, but most or all of its precipitation evaporates before reaching the ground.

"Everything points very clearly toward natural causes," José Maria de Almeida Rodrigues, the national director of Portugal’s judicial police, told Lusa, Portugal’s national news agency.

The Correio do Manhã newspaper warned that many areas hit by the fire had not yet been reached by authorities, so the death toll was likely to increase.

About 60 forest fires broke out in drought-stricken Portugal overnight, with close to 1 700 firefighters across the country.

The authorities have declared three days of national mourning, starting on Sunday.

Featured image: Wildfires in central Portugal killed at least 62 people on June 18, 2017; most of them in cars. Credit: CGTN

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