Colne man caught in Portugal wildfires: "I thought: 'I can't believe this is how it ends...'"

A Colne man caught in the Portuguese wildfires which have claimed the lives of at least 62 people has described the moment that he "broke down", believing he was going to die.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 19th June 2017, 5:21 pm
Updated Tuesday, 20th June 2017, 3:54 pm
The forest fires caused untold devastation to central Portugal.
The forest fires caused untold devastation to central Portugal.

Having emigrated to Portugal four years ago, Gareth Roberts - who works for a medical recruitment company - was returning to his home in Maçãs da Dona Maria from a holiday in Cádiz, Spain, when a sudden change in the wind trapped him in a small village surrounded by the deadly blaze.

The fire, which started on Saturday in Pedrógão Grande some 125 miles north east of Lisbon after being sparked by a lightning strike, has engulfed vast swathes of central Portugal and, despite the efforts of up to 1,500 firemen, continues to rage.

"It's very, very scary," said Gareth. "We're used to forest fires here, we have them every summer, but it's the sheer scale and the ferocity that has taken the country by surprise."

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Colne-born Gareth Roberts, who was caught up in the Portuguese forest fires.

Heading home on the now-ravaged IC8 motorway, the former Colne Park High School pupil Gareth was forced towards the village of Mó Grande as he tried to outrun the fire, which has claimed the lives of dozens of people trying to escape in their cars.

"We had branches and trees falling in the road, but you just had to put your foot down and drive into it," said Gareth. "You knew if you turned around the road was gone, so you could either risk burning to death or stop, and be burned to death anyway.

"We got to the village and at the end of every junction you could see the glow, so we had to stop," he added. "An Englishman shouted to us, saying 'We have a room, you're safe here.'"

Seeking refuge in a basement in the village, which is barely four miles away from the epicentre of the fire, Gareth said: "The fire was roaring outside and all you could see were the embers and feel the heat: it was so hot, the room was full of smoke."It was the most frightening experience of my life," he added. "I wouldn't wish anyone to go through what we went through. People were literally texting and ringing their families saying 'I just want you to know, this is it. I'm dying.' It was harrowing.

Up to 1,500 firefighters are still battling the blaze.

"I cried, thinking, 'I can't believe this is how it ends,'" Gareth continued. "We held hands and we prayed and hoped for a miracle, and that's what happened that night - it was a miracle."

With the fire having thankfully abated after around 40 minutes, Gareth finally ventured outside, only to be shocked by the "apocalyptic" devastation that had been wrought.

"For whatever reason, the house we were in was saved," he said. "There was not one tree left, concrete had exploded, gas canisters were flashing blue as they exploded, houses in the distance were on fire... The village is pretty much destroyed; even the signs were melting."

Now based in a hotel in Tomar - some 37 miles south west of Mó Grande - until he can get home, Gareth has praised the reaction of the local communities, saying: "The support has been overwhelming.

Colne-born Gareth Roberts, who was caught up in the Portuguese forest fires.

"The firemen are doing everything they can; here in Portugal there's no state fire service, it's all voluntary, and these guys have been out there for 48 hours," he added. "They're out on their feet and having to sleep when they can on the roads, so they're reliant on support from the local communities."

With the fires showing little sign of slowing any time soon, Gareth is just thankful to be alive, and is determined to return to Mó Grande to thank the family that took him in.

"They saved out lives," he said. "If they had not invited us in that night, we would've burned to death in our car. Trying to find a way to thank somebody who has done what is in itself a simple gesture but which has saved your life is impossible.

"'Thank you' just isn't enough."

Up to 1,500 firefighters are still battling the blaze.