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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Pedrogao: Unpredictable “Fire Whirlwinds”

Updated: May 19, 2022


“Fire whirlwinds” in Pedrogao Grande prevented the prediction of “the right direction” of the deadliest fire in Portugal’s history, testified the ex-commander of the volunteer firefighters of Obidos.

Carlos Silva spoke to a panel of judges at the Judicial Court of Leiria in the trial to determine possible criminal responsibility for the deaths of 63 and the injuries of 44 in the June 2017 fire of Pedrogao Grande, reported SIC Noticias (February 7).

“We had winds from the north and south, whirlwinds of fire that, in turn, created the projection of particles in an uncontrolled way,” testified Silva on February 7.

It was a fire with the most atypical behavior, he said, explaining that it was not possible to understand the fire’s behavior through AROME, which is a high-resolution limited-area numerical forecasting model.

Silva, who is now an employee of the Institute for the Conservation of Nature and Forests, described where the fire-fighting vehicles were stationed, what was done and the difficulty in communication.

Silva said that he spoke with the commander of the volunteer firefighters of Pedrogao Grande, Augusto Arnaut, who is one of the 11 defendants, via his mobile phone. He was unable to speak with Arnaut via SIRESP (Integrated System of Emergency and Security Networks of Portugal). Therefore, the commander of Peniche “gave directives” for the column of firefighting to move to “Troviscais Fundeiros, where there already was a group of firefighting vehicles from Santarem”, reported SIC Noticias.

As for the ROB (Operational Network of Firefighters), Silva said that the ROB radio managed to work, “but it also presented some difficulties”.

Later, Carlos Silva said that “network 112 also had its fault peaks, but it was the only one on which he could speak by phone”.

The public prosecutor’s office listed discrepancies between the testimony on February 7 and that given in the investigation. The panel of judges authorized the hearing of the testimony of the witness at this stage.

Carlos Silva justified the situation with the fact that he gave initial testimony in November 2017, a few months after the fire, and was now addressing the Court “four years later”, according to SIC Noticias.

A second witness, a firefighter from Pombal, was heard in the afternoon.

On February 3, the head of national operations testified that “there were many things that failed,” admitting that “it was a very different day from the ones that had already passed”, according to Diarias as Beiras (February 3).

The National Emergency and Civil Protection Authority gave priority to fire-fighting vehicles for the fire in Gois, taking into account the “history” of fires in this area, said Joao Gouveia.

“We have a history of some fires, and we know that those in Gois, as in Coimbra, are difficult if they are not extinguished at the start. We know that they are very violent,” said Gouveia in response to a question from the lawyer of the commander of the volunteer firefighters of Pedrogao Grande, Augusto Arnaut, who is one of the 11 defendants.

Gouveia testified that there were “serious flaws” in the timed record of events. The record failed to show that aircraft failed to reach the theater of operations.

“If it wasn’t registered, it should have been. What happens is that sometimes the amount of information is so much and, at the same time, we cannot write everything,” he said, confirming that two helicopters did not arrive at the scene, one of them for technical problems.

Joao Gouveia confirmed that between 2:30 p.m. and 3 p.m., requests for resources were received in the face of the Pedrogao Grande fire and that those of “closest proximity” were dispatched.

He said that the numbers that appear in the system as being on-site “are generated automatically”, which could mean that the vehicles are still in transit.

At the time, the SADO (Operational Decision Support System) was only available to the national command. Therefore, the commander of the volunteer firefighters of Pedrogao Grande, Augusto Arnaut, would not have access to that tool and information, said Gouveia.

Filomena Girao, the attorney for Augusto Arnaut, addressed the court at the end of the morning session:

“We know from very early on that there was a lack of firefighting vehicles and aircraft. Only in the Bible is there the multiplication of the loaves. There were few vehicles, it was said today that for historical reasons Gois was chosen, which was of great concern. Despite the alert having been nine minutes after Escalos Fundeiros, it deserved greater attention. We will never know what it would have been like if the option had been different.

“At this point, there is no doubt that with so few resources, it was not possible to do more than what was done.”

As with the court session on February 2, the trial on February 3 was attended by a substitute prosecutor, reported Diarios as Beiras. According to a judicial source, the prosecutor who has the case has COVID-19.

There was a request for adjournment. However, the panel of judges rejected it.

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; and Augusto Arnaut, the commander of the local fire station, who 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 died.

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).

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

(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 a former councilor were sentenced to seven and six years, respectively, in prison, according to Expresso (January 31). Alves is also one of the 11 defendants in the criminal trial. The housing trial began on October 26, 2020.)

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