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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Belize Fighting Historic Wildfires Like Portugal’s

Updated: Jun 8


 

Teams from the Belize Defence Force and the National Emergency Management Organization along with villagers have been fighting wildfires around the clock in a sweltering heat wave.

  

In May, rural fires began ravaging southern Belize. Thousands of acres of farmland and rainforests have burned, and many cattle killed from Toledo to Cayo districts, reported Amandala (May 27).


This year’s wildfires are the worst in the country’s history, affecting 19 communities and causing more than 200 farmers to lose most or all of their crops, which for many is their sole income, Oscar Requena, Minister of Rural Transformation, Community Development, Local Government and Labour, at a press conference on May 23.


The National Emergency Management Organization estimates crop losses at about $3.1 million.

  

Driven by global warming’s exacerbation of the effects of the El Niño weather pattern, the rest of Central America has seen raging fires since the beginning of the year. Thousands of fires have burned about 660,475 acres (267,285 hectares) in Honduras; 43,497 acres (17,603 hectares) in El Salvador; 715,886 acres (289,709 hectares) in Nicaragua, and 208,223 acres (84,265 hectares) in Costa Rica, according to the Global Wildfire Information System, which looked at the region from January 1 to April 9, reported The Progressive Magazine (April 20).

 

“Right now, it is really (key) to get on the ground to see first-hand what is happening to get a thorough assessment and evaluation, and to quantify the damage, to be able to put together a plan to address the needs, both short-term and long-term,” said Belize Minister Oscar Requena, according to Amandala.


Sustainable Agriculture Forum on June 7

 

The minister is correct even though, first and foremost, everyone is in shock during and in the aftermath of wildfires, which can cloud decision-making. Still, those first reactions can be invaluable to future planning.

 

The “Sustainable Agriculture Adaptation to Climate Change” forum on June 7 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. looks to be an ambitious endeavor. It is scheduled to take place at Mile 25 Southern Highway, Stann Creek. All are welcome.

 

Scheduled presenters are the agronomist Fay Garnett, who was appointed in the Ministry of Agriculture in 2011 to lead the development of non-traditional fruits; Christopher Nesbitt, who has run the permaculture-based Maya Mountain Research Farm since 1988; Nana Mensah, Executive Director of Belize Organic Family Farming of Agriculture; the Belize Agricultural Health Authority (BAHA); Ministry of Agriculture (Stann Creek); Resilient Rural Belize, a six-year program designed to minimize the effect of climate change on farmers with less than 25 acres; Stann Creek Farmers; 125 students, and Wagiya Foundation and the Wachari Organic Agricultural Association (WOAA).

 

A full card.


High Fire Risk in Portugal

 

A Belizean, I live in central Portugal, where I have 4 acres (1.6 hectares) of land. The country has one of the highest wildfire-risk rankings in Europe. The experience here may be of help to Belize.

 

Researchers cite the same contributing factors to rural fires: shifting demographics from rural to urban areas; changes in land use with more agricultural and forested areas left unmaintained, and fragmentation of land ownership patterns that discourages investment in forest management. Policies and practices had not kept up with the changes.

 

The year 2017 was the country’s worst and deadliest year for fires, which included massive ones in central Portugal: around Pedrógão Grande in June and around Oliveira do Hospital in October: 114 people perished and 520,000 hectares burned in which the hardest-hit municipality, my municipality, Oliveira do Hospital, lost 43,191 hectares, according to Observador (October 27, 2017).

 

My son, then 14, and I survived the Great Fire of October 2017.

 

Uncleared land, non-native flammable eucalyptus trees, constant 40C+ (100+ F) temperatures, months of no rain, and high hurricane winds contributed to the fire. Arson was another factor. In 2020, half of the fires in Portugal were criminal, reported SIC Notìcias (March 25, 2021).

 

Short-term needs were addressed days after the start of the fire. Oliveira do Hospital responded to the crisis on matters of clean water, volunteers, clothes, tool and construction material donations, animal burial, the clearing of roads, among other things.

 

Long-term concerns are bolstering fire-fighting capability and increasing prevention. They include aircraft, specialized professional and volunteer firefighters, lookout cameras and arson detection.

 

Bonfire Ban, Cutting

 

As of June 1 until September 30, the 19 municipalities of the Comunidade Intermunicipal da Região de Coimbra banned bonfires as a prevention measure, according to Oliveira do Hospital Municipality. Much of the rest of the country has followed suit.

 

Before the seasonal ban, people are required to register online for approval, which they receive as an email and telephone text. There is a fine for burning without authorization. Enforcement, I think, would be difficult because parcels of land are sometimes isolated and inaccessible. However, I believe that the action of requesting an OK is a powerful deterrent against acting without thinking such as burning tree limbs, leaves and other vegetation on a windy day because it fits into a schedule.

 

In 2017, online approval was not a requirement.

 

Also, since then, texts alert people to high fire-risk conditions. Weather conditions may seem obvious, but they are not. On the night of October 15, 2017, I second-guessed myself and went to bed thinking that I was overreacting to the smoke round me. A text message may have made a difference. My son and I may have left our home a couple of hours earlier.

 

The land-cleaning law, redesigned after the fires of 2017, has a June 1 deadline. It mandates cutting vegetation around houses, villages and roads. Some municipalities have delayed compliance because they do not have the staff or money, reported SIC Notícias (May 31). Municipalities in the interior feel penalized and alone in the task which, strictly speaking, benefits the entire country.

 

Canadair fighting fires in Portugal (@Fernando Liberato)

 

Firefighting Aircraft

 

Portugal is about four times the size of Belize. Portugal’s population is 10.3 million while Belize’s is about 400,000.

 

Currently, it has contracted for 70 airplanes and helicopters, especially useful in inaccessible or difficult to reach places. In extraordinary times, planes from other countries fly over.

 

Since 2003, two amphibious Canadair planes have been contracted to work in unison. Crews were surprised when they were not included in this year’s firefighting system, reported SIC Notícias (May 31).

 

“They carry out raids at low altitudes, carrying out this work as a mission, in an almost military way, in the fight against fires. These teams fly for three weeks, non-stop, then rest for one and so they rotate, pilots and crews of the Canadair,” said Luís Santos, a Canadair pilot and president of Aeroclub de Portugal.

 

Water tanks are filled in flight while skimming over the water surface.

 

Each plane can carry and deliver 6,000 liters (6,340 quarts) of water each time it passes though a fire. Because the planes work in pairs, that is 12,000 liters (12,680). The planes also have quick mobility compared to some other aircraft.

 

Last year, it was impressive to see planes douse fires at their start and return promptly to prevent reignition. I remember passing cars parked on the side of the road and a gaggle of people, including Oliveira do Hospital Municipal President José Francisco Rolo, looking at a fire in Lagares da Beira, on my way to town for groceries. A firefighting plane flew overhead.  On my way back home, a plane had returned to the same fire, which already had seemed overpowered by the first plane.

 

Aerial fighting reduced that fire to a mere mention, not a tragic story.

 

Ground Personnel

 

During “Delta level” (July 1 to September 30), there will be an increase of ground personnel of 14,155 compared to 13,381 this year, according to SIC Notícias (May 14). The number of vehicles will number 3,173.

 

The National Civil Protection Commission stated that approval had been obtained for the Integrated Rural Fire Detection and Surveillance Directive, which establishes coordination mechanisms of institutions involved in fire surveillance through mobile surveillance systems, forest video surveillance, aerial surveillance and the National Network of Watch Posts.

 

In May 2022, the government authorized the creation of 100 new Permanent Intervention Teams on mainland Portugal. Each team member would be composed of five professional firefighters with specialized skills. The total number of teams would increase to 662, almost quadrupling the number of teams in 2016, which was 169, according to the government’s website (March 18, 2022). There were 491 teams in 2017, the year of the two deadliest fires.

 

Transformational Land Project

 

In July 2021, the Portuguese government agreed to a transformational land project, covering 100,000 hectares (247,105 acres) in 26 municipalities, designed to prevent forest fires.

 

There are four aspects of prevention: identifying landowners; creating firebreaks; crop diversification, and development of bio-industries (resins, textiles and footwear), according to Portugal’s government website. Less than 10 percent of the funds will be used to fight fires, said then-Prime Minister Antonio Costa.

 

The Recuperation and Resilience Plan (PRR) project costs 615 million euros and is scheduled to last 20 years, according to the National Confederation of Agricultural Cooperatives and Credito Agricola of Portugal (CONFAGRI) (July 19, 2021).

 

Detecting Causes

 

SIC Notícias (June 1) reported that the GNR (National Republican Guard) has more than 450 soldiers trained to probe the cause of wildfires. The focus of the country on investigation, in recent years, and the GNR’s commitment has led to an increase in the number of people identified and detained each year.

 

The GNR has developed an international reputation. Security forces from South American countries and two graduates of the Spanish Guardia Civil already have arrived in Viseu, the theater of operations.

 

In 2023, of the more than 7,500 recorded incidents, 13 percent had a conclusive investigation, leading to the arrest of more than 1,000 people. In the same year, the GNR recorded 42 percent fewer occurrences.

 

Rural fire drill in the village of Seixas in Seixo da Beira Parish, Oliveira do Hospital Municipality (Photo from Rádio Boa Nova)

 

Practice Drill

 

On May 31 and June 1, a fire-response exercise of more than 300 professionals was scheduled to take place in central Portugal in the municipalities of Nelas, Seia and Oliveira do Hospital (Seixas in Seixo da Beira Parish), reported Rádio Boa Nova (May 30).

 

The Fénix 2024 exercise planned to include scenarios of evacuating people from villages and fighting fires with “high speed” and “extreme behavior”, characteristics which describe the June 2017 Pedrógao Grande fire after which 11 fire, government and electricity company officials were put on trial for negligent homicide. A panel of judges acquitted the defendants.

 

The probe of the Great Fire of October 2017 has not been filed or resulted in any indictments, according to a judicial source of Expresso (August 13, 2021).

 

The Public Ministry combined the October 15 fires into a single mega-inquiry, which was centralized by the Department of Investigation and Criminal Action (DIAP) and the Judicial Police. Fires were grouped together which did not have the same characteristics unlike the procedure in Pedrógao Grande.

 

National Rules Delayed

 

National regulations for municipalities, which would restrict people’s movements and activities during heightened rural fire risk due to weather, have been delayed until the end of this year, the then-Secretary of State for Nature Conservation and Forests, João Paulo Catarino, told TSF Radio Notícias (March 20, 2023).

 

Meanwhile, local rules remain in effect.

 

The Carta de Perigosidade de Incendio Rural already had been delayed once by decree-law on July 19, 202 until March 31, 2023, on the assumption that the methodology of pinpointing very low to very high fire-risk areas on the revised fire-danger map would be discussed with municipalities and intermunicipal communities, reported Observador (February 23, 2023).

 

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