The Public Ministry asked that Augusto Arnaut, commander of the Volunteer Firefighters of Pedrogao Grande, serve more than five years. (Photo by Pedro Granadeiro/Global Imagen)
The state prosecution asked for the imprisonment of an electricity firm employee and a firefighter commander in closing arguments of the trial of possible criminal negligence for the deaths of 63 and the injuries of 44 in the June 2017 fire of Pedrogao Grande, reported Diario de Noticias (May 18).
The Public Ministry asked for the conviction of 10 of the 11 defendants in the trial of the deadliest fire in Portugal, reported Jornal de Noticias (May 18).
In its closing arguments on May 18 at the Tribunal Court of Leiria, the Public Ministry asked for the imprisonment of Casimiro Pedro, an employee of the former EDP Distribuçao (Energias de Portugal), currently E-REDES, and imprisonment of more than five years for Augusto Arnaut, commander of the Volunteer Firefighters of Pedrogao Grande, according to Diario de Noticias.
Prosecutor Ana Mexia said: “(Augusto Arnaut) must be convicted of the crimes for which he was sentenced to an effective prison sentence of more than five years, given his guilt and the high needs of prevention that were felt.”
The prosecutor stated that Augusto Arnaut based “his strategy on assumptions that turned out to be wrong”, stressing several times that he should have requested the AROME, which would have made it possible to “define other measures to be taken”. AROME is a small-scale numerical prediction model, which improves short-range forecasts of severe events.
“There were little prospects of quickly controlling the fire,” so civil protection measures such as the removal of people from the localities or the cutting of roads “should have been considered as early as 18:00,” said the prosecutor, citing several testimonies at the trial and reports made by the Independent Technical Commission and the Center for Studies on Forest Fires. (At 2:38 p.m., a fire broke out in Vale da Ribeira de Frades (Escalos Fundeiros).)
After that, she added, directions should have been for people to “stay at home”.
By not properly evaluating the weather conditions, in particular the behavior of the wind, Augusto Arnaut disregarded the right flank of the Escalos Fundeiros fire, its projections and the effect of its encounter with the fire of Regadas, said the prosecutor.
Referring to a report by the Judiciary Police, the prosecutor said that “there was a network” of communications in the area affected by the fire and that the commander of relief operations could have “triggered information mechanisms to the population” through social networks and radios in order to convey advice “to reduce the existing risk”.
The Public Ministry attributed to Augusto Arnaut, as commander of relief operations, a delay in setting up the operational command post, not asking for more resources and not having fully informed the District Command of Leiria Relief Operations about the development of the fire.
The prosection said that the commander omitted “obligatory and elementary procedures and duties in view of the functions he performed and whose obligation he knew, which he was capable of adopting and fulfilling, having to have done so to avoid a result that he could and should have foreseen” the death of people and injuries in others.
The fire commander’s lawyer, Margarida Girao, was surprised by the Public Ministry’s request. As she left court, she said:
“The feeling I have is that I was not in the same trial as the prosecutor. Key testimonies from the operatives, the national command of the ANPC (National Civil Protection Authority) and the Minister of Internal Administration at the time (Constança Urbano de Sousa) were ignored, all of them saying that Commander Arnaut had no means and could not do more of what he did.”
2 Electricity Firm Employees
As for the other defendant who is an employee of E-REDES, Jose Geria, prosecutor Ana Mexia said that he should be “judged according to the evidence produced”.
The indictment assigns the electricity firm employees responsibility for the omission of basic procedures necessary to create and maintain the fuel management strip on the Lousa-Pedrogao medium-voltage line, where two electrical discharges occurred that triggered the fire. Casimiro Pedro was manager of the Network Area – Central and responsible for the operational area. Jose Geria was deputy director of the Network Maintenance Area at EDP Central.
Prosecutor Ana Mexia said that the court can take for granted that the fire “was due to an electrical discharge of undetermined cause in the Lousa-Pedrogao medium-voltage line”. She rejected the argument that landowners had the responsibility of cleaning fuel strips where the “cork oaks touched the power lines”.
Ana Mexia cited the testimony of a landowner in which he said that “he never received instructions from EDP to do so” and that “sometimes, it was EDP that did these cleanings”.
“(Owners) don’t have to have the necessary means to ensure the safety of the facilities” of E-REDES, pointing to the risk of electrocution, “nor to ensure the proper functioning” of the electrical structures, said the prosecutor.
“There is no doubt” that the fuel management and protection bands “were not properly implemented” next to the medium-voltage line, said Mexia.
3 Roads Authority Defendants
In the case of the three employees of the roads authority, Ascendi Pinhal Interior, Jose Reves, Ugo Berardinelli and Jose Mota, the prosecution requested a prison term of more than five years for 34 crimes of negligent homicide and seven of offenses to physical integrity for not ensuring the cleaning of the fuel management lanes of the EN 236-1, known as the “road of death”.
5 Local Officials
In relation to Valdemar Alves, former mayor of Pedrogao Grande, Jose Graça, at the time a councilor, and Margarida Gonçalves, then responsible for the forestry technical office, the Public Ministry asked for the three defendants to be sentenced to “a single penalty in a measure considered adequate” for six deaths, according to Jornal de Noticias.
At the beginning of the session, Valdemar Alves clarified:
“Given the statements I made during the investigation, I did not want to attribute any responsibility to anyone on the issue of fuel strips. The responsibility was mine. I did not delegate it to anyone, either formally or informally.”
(There was a separate trial of alleged irregularities in the rebuilding of houses after the fire. On January 31, Valdemar Alves was sentenced to seven years in prison. Alves appealed the sentence described as “inhumane . . . and is equivalent to life imprisonment” which recalls the defendant’s age – 73 – and his state of health, reported Visao Verde (April 4).)
Fernando Lopes, former mayor of Castanheira de Pera, should be given “a single sentence” for the deaths of four citizens, said the prosecution.
The Public Ministry asked for the acquittal of the mayor of Figueiro dos Vinhos, Jorge Abreu, according to Jornal de Noticias.
According to the indictment, the Public Ministry reported that on June 17, 2017, at 2:38 p.m., a fire broke out in Vale da Ribeira de Frades (Escalos Fundeiros), in the municipality of Pedrogao Grande, triggered by an electrical discharge of unknown cause originating in the Lousa-Pedrogao medium-voltage power line, reported Diario de Noticias.
The initial area of the fire occurred on land in a 500-meter section of the medium-voltage line that “was devoid of a protection strip and where fuel management had not been carried out”.
Trees and vegetation under the electrical line “provided the ignition of the fire . . . produced by the aforementioned electrical discharge”.
At about 16:00, “a fire broke out in Regadas (Pedrogao Grande)”, also triggered “by an electrical discharge of unknown cause” originating from the same medium-voltage line.
The trial began on May 24, 2021.