Pedrogao Trial: “Fires Aren’t Fought But Prevented”
Updated: Jan 21
Most of the deaths occurred on National Road 236-1, which connects Castanheira de Pera and Figueiro dos Vinhos.
Portugal has an obligation “to bet more on prevention of forest fires”, said the former district commander of relief operations (CODIS) of Leiria at the trial to determine possible criminal charges in Portugal's deadliest fire.
“We learned very little from 2017, and we are at the mercy of weather conditions,” said Sergio Gomes at the Judicial Court of Leiria, according to Renascença (March 22). “What happened in Pedrogao Grande could happen in any part of the territory.”
The Pedrogao Grande fire in June 2017 killed 66 and injured 253. It destroyed about half a thousand homes and 50 businesses.
That same year, the October 2017 fire, also in the Central region, killed 50 and injured 70. It partially or totally destroyed about 1,500 homes and more than 500 businesses.
I was in the October 2017 fire in Oliveira do Hospital, where 97 percent of the municipality burned.
(There was a separate trial of alleged irregularities in the rebuilding of houses after the fire. On January 31, Valdemar Alves, former president of Pedrogao Grande municipality, and Bruno Gomes, a former councilor, were sentenced to seven and six years, respectively, in prison, according to Expresso (January 31).)
(An appeal for Valdemar Alves described the sentence 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).)
Alves is also one of the 11 defendants in this negligent homicide trial.
“Fires are not fought. They are prevented,” said Sergio Gomes, the witness for the defense of the former mayor of Castanheira de Pera, Fernando Lopes, and the commander of the volunteer firefighters of Pedrogao Grande, Augusto Arnaut, two of the 11 defendants.
In this case, Sergio Gomes had been accused by the Public Ministry of 63 crimes of negligent homicide and 44 crimes of grievous bodily harm, 14 of which were serious.
However, during the investigation, the judge ruled that he would not be tried because “given the abnormality of the fire and the dominance of the event after its resurgence”, there was little he could do, according to Renascença.
In a statement, the former commander, who is now director of a fire-prevention and fire-fighting company, said that after becoming aware of the June 17 fire, he recalled that his “first eight contacts were for people who were not available”.
In this regard, he later recalled that the country has “a system based on voluntary work, which does not mean incompetence, but depends on availability”, reported Renascenca.
“Today, more than 25,000 volunteers operate alongside about 5,000 professional firefighters in Portugal,” according to The New York Times (August 12, 2017).
“After Portugal emerged from dictatorship in the 1970s, joining the volunteer fire brigades became a badge of honor in Portugal’s democratic society.
“Everybody in Portugal has a cousin who is a firefighter hero,” said Joao Gama, a lawyer and former secretary of state for local government. “No politician wants to even start the discussion about a system of volunteers that is really part of our society’s culture.”
The New York Times continued: “The system of volunteers has been affected by the migration from rural to urban areas, meaning young volunteers often need to travel long distances to reach a forest fire, which occurred with the tragedy at Pedrogao Grande in June (2017).
“In the U.S., it’s forbidden for a firefighter to enter an unknown environment, but this now often happens here,” said Emanuel Oliveira, a fire risk consultant and former firefighter.”
Renascença reported that the indictment had maintained that Commander Augusto Arnaut did not request AROME in time. (AROME is a small-scale numerical prediction model, which increases short-range forecasts of severe events.)
When asked about AROME, Sergio Gomes said that “a lot of emphasis” has been put on this tool, “but, in terms of operation, it is worth very little” as it is “very limiting”, not including, for example, land orography, a branch of physical geography that deals with mountains.
Asked whether it was possible to evacuate safely localities or cut roads, Sergio Gomes replied that it would have been necessary “to have the notion that the fire would have that development”. There was “nothing predicting that outcome, just pure guesswork.”
Renascença continued: “On the other hand, (Sergio Gomes) classified it as unreasonable and unacceptable that the second national operational commander of the then-National Civil Protection Authority, now the National Emergency and Civil Protection Authority, Colonel Albino Taveres, held 11 briefings for 22 hours when he assumed operational command of the Pedrogao Grande fire.”
Sergio Gomes echoed what other defense witnesses with firefighting experience and leadership have said: Augusto Arnaut “did what could be done in those circumstances”.
Regarding the former mayor of Castanheira de Pera, Fernando Lopes, Gomes stressed that “in the area of Civil Protection, he always fulfilled his obligations”. “Always collaborative and always available”, he said, recalling a fire in 2016 in which it was necessary to evacuate about 2,000 people from Praia das Rocas.
Other witnesses heard on March 22 were Lousa councilmember Ricardo Fernandes, Mortagua councilmember Luis Rodrigues and climatologist, Mario Marques.
The trial began on May 24, 2021.
The 11 trial defendants are two former municipality presidents, one current municipality president and two council employees, who are accused of failing to clear the land along the roads. Augusto Arnaut, the commander of the volunteer firefighters of Pedrogao Grande, is accused of preventing the safeguarding villages and populations having omitted information that could have led to a cut in the road where 47 people lost their lives.
The other defendants are 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, 2021).
The defendants all face charges of negligent homicide and grievous bodily harm, according to Diario de Noticias (May 24, 2021).