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Portugal fires: Varzeas mourns villagers who fled

Varzeas - fire-blackened road sign Image copyright Juan Dominguez, BBC
Image caption Varzeas after the blaze: Some homes were hit, but others remained unscathed

"We heard a massive noise from the forest," Amilcar Ferreira remembers.

To emphasise, he blows out his cheeks.

"And then we saw the flames."

"We'd never seen anything like it before," says Waldemar de Jesus Lopez. "It all happened in just a few seconds."

In the moments after the forest fire started on Saturday afternoon, the people of Varzeas knew they had to act quickly.

Their village stands on a hillside, surrounded by woodland. Should they stay at home and risk getting caught by the flames? Or drive away in search of safety?

Deadly route

Mario Pinhal and his family fled in two cars. He took his parents and godmother in one car. His wife Suzana drove ahead with their daughters Joana and Margarida.

The family drove a short distance towards the nearest main road - the N236-1. The road is lined on either side by forest. On Saturday afternoon, fires quickly engulfed the trees and then, horrifyingly, the road itself.

Smoke and flames caught and killed dozens of people escaping in their cars, including Suzana, Joana and Margarida. Mario Pinhal and his parents, travelling behind, managed to escape.

"I regret leaving home," Mario Pinhal told Portuguese TV. "Regardless of everyone's kind efforts, all I want is to have my wife and daughters back."

"We should have died instead," Mario's mother cried to a relief worker. "Nobody would miss us. How can I explain that I will go to my granddaughters' funerals?"

Image copyright Juan Dominguez, BBC
Image caption Charred trees on the edge of Varzeas show the intensity of the inferno

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The family's neighbour, Elisa Ferreira, stands in shock outside her own house. Like many older people in Varzeas, she stayed in the village during the fire. The decision saved her life.

"We were lucky," she says on the edge of tears. "Thank God we were lucky. But 14 people in this village died."

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Media captionDrone footage shows burnt-out cars in the Pedrógão Grande area

Nearby, a burnt-out car and trailer have been abandoned in the middle of the road. Smoke still rises from woodland next to the village.

Varzeas lies less than 2km (one mile) north of Nodeirinho, another stricken village in the path of the inferno that spread from Pedrógão Grande.

Survivors are trying to count which of their neighbours they've lost in Varzeas. In the main square, Sisaltina puts her hand to her head and takes a deep breath before she begins the toll.

"Two from here," she points across the road, "three, four, five…"

Towards the edge of the village, Mario Pinhal's home remains standing. There's soot around the flowerbeds. But the house itself appears undamaged.

It is a shattering monument to his family's decision to flee. If they had simply stayed put, they would all have survived.

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