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article imageFrom village to village, delivering aid in Portugal fire zone

By Marianne BARRIAUX (AFP)     Jun 22, 2017 in World

Claudia Borges unloads boxes of water and cereal bars from a removal truck at a fire operations centre on a mountaintop in Portugal, black smoke rising in the background.

Wearing shorts and a t-shirt, her smartphone strapped to her arm, the 30-year-old former reporter hands the supplies to emergency workers battling forest fires near Pampilhosa da Serra.

"I came here because I wanted to help the firefighters, they are true heroes," she says while unpacking the truck filled with donated goods, straining to speak as a helicopter flies above.

From the town of Vila Franca de Xira near Lisbon, she and the owners of a removal company who decided to use one of their trucks are driving from village to village distributing donated goods.

- 'Always scared' -

Borges, with her blond hair and a fresh smile, cuts a different sight from the blaze-weary firefighters, soldiers and police in mountains full of winding roads where the flames are treacherous and unpredictable, appearing at the turn of a bend with little warning.

The fire started Saturday in the area of Pedrogao Grande some 20 kilometres away, so uncontrollable and rapid that it killed at least 64 people, many of them trapped on a road as they tried to escape.

"I saw this tragedy on television, and I thought I have to do something," Borges said.

She set up a Facebook page asking for donations for the victims and firefighters battling the blaze.

Within two days, she had collected enough to fill a truck.

Nilson Cabral and Luciane Silva, the owners of the MudaTudo removal company, agreed to loan one of their trucks and drive her to the zone for free.

The three of them, together with a man who accompanies them on a motorbike for safety, set off Wednesday and are driving around the mountain roads.

"I'm always scared," Borges says.

"When I see smoke, dark clouds, when I hear strange noises..."

- Donation drive -

From the mountaintop operations centre, where a convoy of forest firefighters from Spain has just passed through on its way to a blaze already being pounded by water dropped from planes, Borges, Cabral and Silva set off for Pessegueiro.

This remote village needs supplies, they have heard.

The large truck is driven carefully along the tiny, winding roads, slowing down as power lines hang low, damaged by the passage of the fire that has left the lush wood of eucalyptus trees and pines dark, smouldering and bare.

Once arrived in the sunny village through which runs an enticing river, villagers point further up to the firefighters' headquarters, where water is needed in the stifling heat.

After their delivery, Borges and her crew ask them which way to go to avoid the flames, and they set off again to Pampilhosa da Serra.

Locals in this central area of Portugal are no strangers to forest fires, but they say they have never seen a blaze of this magnitude.

The extent of the tragedy -- lives lost, homes destroyed, villages fighting the flames -- has prompted a rush of solidarity from Portugal and further afield.

The Aga Khan, for example, a globally renowned philanthropist, donated 500,000 euros for the fire victims.

And closer to home, residents and passers-by have dropped off goods at their local fire stations or where people who were evacuated are staying -- all touched by the situation and hoping to do their part, like Borges, Cabral and Silva.

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