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Pedrogao’s “Tunnel of Flames” Caused by System Failure

Updated: Nov 9


Most of the deaths occurred on National Road 236-1, which connects Castanheira de Pera and Figueiro dos Vinhos. (Photo by Carlos Manuel Martins/Global Imagens)

The entire system failed in the fire of Pedrogao Grande in June 2017, and there are people, at higher levels, who have contributed to this state of affairs, testified an expert in the legal proceedings of 11 defendants who are on trial to determine responsibility for the deaths of 63 and the injuries of 44, according to Diario de Noticias (November 2).


It became virtually impossible to fight the fire from 18:00 on June 17, said Domingos Xavier Viegas, coordinator of the Center for Studies on Forest Fires at the University of Coimbra, who wrote one of the government-commissioned reports on the fire. In the most critical location, there were no conditions for survival due to the state of vegetation, reported SIC Noticias (November 2).


Later, during a break at the Judicial Court of Leiria on November 2, according to Diario de Noticias, the witness elaborated to journalists:


“Here, I’m just going to give an opinion, I think it’s difficult to hold a person responsible because an event like this, a fire of this complexity, must be managed by a team, by a group of people, by an institution, in this case, by a system.”


Most of the deaths occurred on National Road 236-1, which connects Castanheira de Pera and Figueiro dos Vinhos.


This system “already had failed months before in the way it was organizing or reorganizing the delay it had in appointing people, in replacing people. It also was failing in the lack of qualification and preparation of many of its agents.


“Therefore, I think that what has to be held responsible here is a whole system, but that must not be held accountable because sometimes we are looking for scapegoats. However, we forget that there are, sometimes in echelons higher, also people who contributed to this state of affairs.”


Domingos Xavier Viegas admitted that these people are not on trial.


“It’s not my job to assess this either. However, as a citizen, I believe that society cannot refrain from taking these situations into account. Sometimes, we are looking to aggravate arsonists’ penalties, and we don’t take these people into account, people who are equally responsible.”


The forest fire specialist reiterated his testimony that if the vegetation bordering the road had been cut in an adequate and timely manner on N 231-1, the conditions for the survival of more people would have been greater.


“The fire is one thing -- its origin, the way it spread, the weather conditions. The victims are another thing. And, in this case, we had a perfectly unacceptable number of people killed. . . . The conditions there on the road were in no way facilitating the survival of people, even in cars,” he said, after having said at the trial that the vegetation on this road made almost an arc, creating a "tunnel of flames”.


Also, the professor, who led the University of Coimbra’s Faculty of Sciences and Technology (Department of Mechanical Engineering) team, said that the group investigation concluded with the connection between the origin of the fire in Pedrogao Grande and two points in the medium-voltage power line from Lousa to Pedrogao.


“There were facts that link the vegetation to the electrical line that caused parts of the vegetation to burn and fall from the tree, giving rise to fire spots that were easy to produce on that day because of the extreme dryness.”


The defendants are one current municipality president, two former municipality president and two council employees, who are accused of failing to clear the land along the roads; the commander of the local fire station, who is accused of preventing the safeguarding of villages and populations, having omitted information that could have led to a cut in the road where 47 people died; two EDP (Energias de Portugal) electricity firm employees, who are accused of not cleaning the strips along a medium-voltage line, which had an electrical discharge of unknown cause that set off the fire; and three members of roads authority Ascendi Pinhal Interior, who are accused of lack of road maintenance, according to Observador (May 24).


They all face charges of negligent homicide and grievous bodily harm, according to Diario de Noticias (May 24).


The trial began on May 24.



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