Pedrogao Trial: Fire Chief Did All He Could, Expert Says
The June 2017 fire devastated Escalos Fundeiros village in Pedrogao Grande municipality.
An expert witness in the Pedrogao Grande fire trial said that the fire brigade commander could not have done more.
Domingos Xavier Viegas testified on November 8 at the Judicial Court of Leiria after beginning his testimony the previous week. Faced with questions from the attorney for the commander of the volunteer firefighters, Augusto Arnaut, the witness said that “in view of the situation he was facing, he did not have the necessary means” and “acted accordingly” at the time, reported the Expresso (November 8).
“He couldn’t have done anything differently under the conditions,” asked the attorney, Fernanda Girao.
“I agree,” answered Domingos Xavier Viegas, the 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.
Commander Augusto Arnaut 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 lost their lives. He is one of 11 defendants in the trial to determine responsibility for the deaths of 63 and the injuries of 44 in the June 2017 fire. Most of the deaths occurred on National Road 236-1, which connects Castanheira de Pera and Figueiro dos Vinhos.
“The priority is to safeguard people’s lives, and he acted with that concern. The commander prevented the fire from entering the village” (of Pedrogao Grande), he said, noting that one of the aircraft heading for the municipality of Pedrogao Grande was diverted to the municipality of Gois, 43 kilometers north.
Domingos Xavier Viegas said that the district command “was aware of the situation in Escalos Fundeiros”, a village described in Jornal de Noticias (June 30, 2017) as one with forested mountains which had been transformed into virgin forest since the last fire devastated it in 1991, making it difficult for firefighter access. According to the Expresso, the decision to send aircraft “was with the district command and the national command,” not Arnaut’s local command, testified the forest fire expert, who led the University of Coimbra’s Faculty of Sciences and Technology (Department of Mechanical Engineering) team investigation.
Commander Arnaut only “had responsibility for firefighting equipment on the ground and for his command post”.
The witness added that it would be “very difficult” to evacuate people safely because many were tourists, and the route would not be easy to follow due to the multiplicity of secondary roads.
Despite the huge size of the fire, “it would be important to clean the fuel management lane at 10 meters” bordering the road.
“All fires, when they start, are small, and these strips are, without a doubt, a safeguard for people’s lives,” he said, insisting that “if there were this fuel management, maybe there would be more possibility for people to protect themselves.”
Besides Commander Arnaut, the other defendants are one current municipality president, two former municipality presidents and two council employees, who are accused of failing to clear the land along the roads; 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 face charges of negligent homicide and grievous bodily harm, according to Diario de Noticias (May 24).
The trial began on May 24.