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“Broken Planet”: "Mega-Fires" in Portugal

Updated: Dec 13, 2020


Residents turned garden hoses on the flames near Obidos, hours after the October 2017 fire began in Portugal’s interior. (Photo by Armando Franca/Associated Press)

In a seemingly endless summer, I pulled down the shades in my house to stop it from heating up like an oven each afternoon. For the first time, friends’ wells were going dry. Although I love the heat, this weather pattern seemed wrong . . . creepily wrong.


Then, on a Sunday, the sun alternated between clouding with smoke and shining an eerie red. I took in clothes so that they would not smell. Fires in central Portugal are a regular summer occurrence.


However, this was October 15. Autumn.


Furious winds of Hurricane Ophelia howled into the region, which had been praying for rain. That evening, my 14-year-old son and I stared into the large red mouths of six fires rushing in columns across our neighbors’ land toward us. We turned and ran for our lives in the opposite direction. We were trapped in our village. We could not get out, and firefighters could not get in. I drove our car to the stone-paved village square, where we witnessed red embers falling around us. The car, sealed to eye-stinging smoke, could not shut out the dragon roar of wind and fire. We waited for five hours.


It felt like 15 minutes. Yet, we were lucky. We survived that hellish night.


The heart of Portugal burned in 440 fires. Fifty-one died and 70 suffered injuries, while several hundred lost their homes and businesses.


“I have never seen anything like this in my life,” said my neighbor, Jose Barra, then 77, of Fiais da Beira in the municipality of Oliveira do Hospital, where 10 died and more than 100 families lost their homes. Two fires, coming from Nelas in the north and Seia from the east, savaged the parish and the town of Oliveira do Hospital.


Several factors contributed to those fires – arson, uncleared land, non-native flammable eucalyptus trees and the weather. However, it is the weather that torched the scene.


It has taken me three years to recognize the significance of global warming in this tragedy, which was in my own backyard. It was the worst year for fires in Portugal. Earlier, in June, the Pedrogao Grande fires, the deadliest in Portugal, had killed 66 and injured 204.


“In June 2017, for the first time in our latitudes, Portugal suffered a new type of fire, unknown to this date by the scientific community: a sixth-generation mega-fire clearly linked to global change,” World Wildlife Fund, Spain wrote in The Mediterranean Burns (2019).


“Extreme, uncontrollable and lethal. A type of fire that was repeated again that same year in Portugal and Spain, and a year later in Greece.


“Climate change is accelerating and intensifying the occurrence of large fires at a quicker step than originally expected: we have moved from not having this type of fire to having the three largest fires in Europe in merely two years, and in the same region.”


Days ago, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said that the last decade was the hottest one on record, according to BBC News (December 2).


“The state of our planet is broken,” said Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal. “Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal. Nature always fights back and is doing so with gathering force and fury.”


“We have an emergency,” he said. “But I have hope. Now, we must declare a permanent ceasefire with nature and reconcile with nature.”


There is a momentum for a return to balance in nature, which Guterres hopes will become a movement with countries taking decisive action. Some countries are doing just that.


Last week, Denmark announced that it will end all new oil and gas exploration in the North Sea, according to BBC News (December 4). It plans to stop extracting fossil fuels by 2050.


It also agreed to cancel its latest licensing round last Thursday, which gives companies permission to search for and produce oil and gas.


“We are putting a final end to the fossil era,” said Dan Jorgensen, Denmark’s climate minister. “We want to be carbon neutral in 2050. And if we are to have any credibility in that, then this is a necessary decision.”


Denmark is the largest oil producer in the European Union. The decision will cost it about 13 billion kroner (£1.1 billion), according to estimates by the energy minister, who added that the amount was subject to substantial uncertainty.


Even so, about 4,000 jobs depend on fossil fuels. As part of the new plan, Jorgensen said that carbon capture and storage technology will be developed on Denmark’s west coast, and new jobs will be created in the growing offshore wind sector.


In September, China’s President Xi Jinping announced that his country will aim to hit peak emissions before 2030 and for carbon neutrality by 2060, according to BBC News (September 22). Until then, China had avoided making a commitment to a long-term goal.


China is the world’s largest producer of carbon dioxide at 28 percent.


So, at a time when global climate negotiations had stalled, this was good news. This year’s meeting of the COP26 countries has been postponed to next year.


“China isn’t just the world’s biggest emitter but the biggest energy financier and biggest market, so its decisions play a major role in shaping how the rest of the world progresses with its transition away from the fossil fuels that cause climate change,” said Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, a United Kingdom-based think tank.


“The announcement is also a major fillip for the European Union, whose leaders recently urged President XI to take exactly this step as part of a joint push on lowering emissions, showing that international moves to curb climate change remain alive despite the best efforts of (United States President) Donald Trump and (Brazil’s President) Jair Bolsonaro in the run-up to next year’s COP26 (the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference) in Glasgow.”


U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has pledged that the country (second-highest global carbon dioxide emission at 15 percent) will rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, which Trump rejected with bravado.


Portugal emitted .14 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide, according to Worldmeter (2016).


The irony of climate change is that the major polluters cause disasters in countries with clean air. In 2001, when Guterres was prime minister, Portugal launched a renewable energy program, which sought to increase the competitiveness of the Portuguese economy and modernize the country’s social fabric while preserving the environment by reducing gas emissions. The Iberian Peninsula nation does not have the North Sea or some other source of fossil fuel. The government invested in hydro, wind, solar, geothermal and wave power.


The environmental challenge is global . . . as are the solutions. Countries have to take care of themselves to take care of each other. Portugal climbed eight places and ranked 17th out of 57 countries plus the European Union in the 2019 Climate Change Performance Index, it was announced on Monday.


Three years ago, everyone lost something in “The Fire”: ancient olive trees, faithful grapevines, sheltering homes, stolen years. Some lost their nerve.


The landscape, though still beautiful, now exposes granite-sculptured outlooks near the Serra da Estrela mountains. Lush oaks and towering pines have given way to plots of broom shrubs and tracts of mimosa trees. Much of the beauty, frankly, is in my memory of eight years living here.



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