Portugal's worst forest fires in living memory have so far claimed the lives of 62 people, most of whom died in their cars as they tried to flee the inferno.

Photos of the aftermath and the chilling statistics paint a horrific picture. Interior Ministry official Jorge Gomes said at least 30 people died inside their cars on a section of road between the towns of Figueiro dos Vinhos and Castanheira de Pera. He said 17 others died next to their cars or on the roadside, suggesting they had probably abandoned their vehicles in panic. Eleven people died in the forest, two people died in a car accident related to the fire, and information is missing on the other deaths.

Portugal forest fires Pedrogao Grande
Burnt-out cars are seen along a road through a devastated forest near Figueiro dos VinhoRafael Marchante/Reuters
Portugal forest fires Pedrogao Grande
A burnt-out car is pictured among blackened trees near Pedrogao GrandeRafael Marchante/Reuters
Portugal forest fires Pedrogao Grande
A burned car is seen on a road near Pedrogao GrandeRafael Marchante/Reuters
Portugal forest fires Pedrogao Grande
A policeman stands near a victim of a forest fire on the IC8 motorway near Pedrogao GrandeRafael Marchante/Reuters
Portugal forest fires Pedrogao Grande
A forest fire rages along the IC8 motorway near Pedrogao GrandeMiguel Vidal/Reuters
Portugal forest fires Pedrogao Grande
A burned car is pictured in a forest consumed by wildfires near Castanheira de Pera, in Leiria districtPablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

Prime Minister Antonio Costa said the death toll could rise as firefighters inspected charred remains of some buildings in remote villages.

The fire broke out in a forest near the town of Pedrogao Grande, about 200 kilometres northeast of Lisbon at around 15:00 on Saturday (17 June). Police said the blaze was probably caused by a lightning strike hitting a tree during a phenomenon known as a dry thunderstorm, in which falling raindrops evaporate before reaching the ground because of high temperatures.

Scorching weather, with temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), as well as strong winds and dry woodland after weeks with little rain are fuelling the blazes.

Portugal forest fires Pedrogao Grande
People watch a wildfire raging in forests near the village of Mega FundeiraMiguel Riopa/AFP
Portugal forest fires Pedrogao Grande
A dog that survived the blaze despite being tied up outside a burned house near Castanheira de Pera, in Leiria districtPablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
Portugal forest fires Pedrogao Grande
A burnt-out car is seen outside destroyed houses near Castanheira de Pera, in Leiria districtPablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
Portugal forest fires Pedrogao Grande
A resident of the village of Trespostos uses a hose as he tries to extinguish the flames threatening his homePatricia de Melo Moreira/AFP
Portugal forest fires Pedrogao Grande
A man stands outside a smouldering house after a wildfire in Canical, near AlvaresMiguel Riopa/AFP
Portugal forest fires Pedrogao Grande
Police and members of the Red Cross evacuate people from their homes at Torgal, Castanheira de PeraPatricia de Melo Moreira/AFP
Portugal forest fires Pedrogao Grande
Eduardo Abreu and Luisilda Malheiro, who lost nearly all the livestock on their farm in Figueiro dos Vinhos, react as firefighters go byPatricia de Melo Moreira/AFP

The prime minister said the emergency services acted as fast as they could but acknowledged that some of the efforts like alerting the population might have been hindered because the blaze had destroyed phone lines and communications towers.

More than 1,000 firefighters are still battling to tackle the blaze on several fronts. At their peak there were 156 forest fires, with nearly 1,700 firefighters trying to contain them. France and Italy have sent water-dropping planes as part of a European Union cooperation programme.

Portugal forest fires Pedrogao Grande
A wildfire is reflected in a stream at Penela, Coimbra, central PortugalPatricia de Melo Moreira/AFP
Portugal forest fires Pedrogao Grande
Firefighters work to put out a forest fire near the village of FatoRafael Marchante/Reuters
Portugal forest fires Pedrogao Grande
Huge flames consume dry trees in a forest near the village of Mega FundeiraMiguel Riopa/AFP
Portugal forest fires Pedrogao Grande
Flames approach houses in the village of Mega FundeiraMiguel Riopa/AFP

The government declared three days of mourning. "The dimensions of this fire have caused a human tragedy beyond any in our memory," Prime Minister Antonio Costa told reporters as he arrived at the scene on Sunday. "Something extraordinary has taken place and we have to wait for experts to properly determine its causes."