Portugal: 5-Year Fire Anniversary Offers Hope
Photo by Ricardo Graça/EPA
I entered the office of my parish, Ervedal da Beira, in Oliveira do Hospital, with excitement, trepidation and an English-Portuguese dictionary. As a new immigrant, I hoped to obtain residency documents for myself and family.
It was after lunch, and there was only one person behind the desk. She wore her auburn hair short and neatly coiffed, and eyeglasses only some of the time. Patiently, she listened to my request in my Portuguese-Spanish mishmash. She was a bright light, amiable and full of life, laughing with colleagues who later joined her and advised her on the process. Ten years ago, my request seemed to be an unusual one. Yet, she walked me through the application, and she told me to come back the next day for the documents, which needed an official’s signature.
She made good on her word. The next day, I obtained the papers.
The parish employee was Bernarda Matias, the 50th fatality victim of the Great Fire of October 15, 2017.
Bernarda Matias, 66, died eight months later in a hospital in Coimbra. Bernarda had sustained grave burns on half of her body, reported Boa Nova Radio (June 14, 2018). She had tried to escape the fire in a car with her nephew.
In a story about the fire’s fifth anniversary, Expresso (October 14) wrote:
“After the tragedy of Pedrogao Grande, it was not expected that another would follow, almost as deadly, more extensive in territory, more severe in material losses.
“It only took four months.
“On October 15, 2017, in a single day, the flames multiplied into 914 ignitions, burned 241,000 hectares (78% forest) and, along the way, resulted in 50 deaths in 40 locations in 15 municipalities in the districts of Castelo Branco, Coimbra, Guarda and Viseu.”
On September 13, 2022, a panel of judges acquitted all of the 11 defendants who were accused of negligent homicide of 63 and grievous bodily harm of 44 in the Pedrogao Grande fire , the deadliest in Portugal’s history, reported Expresso (September 13).
However, the probe of the Great Fire of October 2017 has not been filed, much less resulted in any indictments, according to a judicial source of Expresso (August 13, 2021).
The Public Ministry decided to combine the October 15 fires into a single mega-inquiry, which was centralized by the Department of Investigation and Criminal Action (DIAP) and the Judicial Police, reported Expresso (August 13, 2021).
According to Expresso (October 14):
“Five years later, it is the enormity of numbers, geographic scope and diversity of causes that justify the delay in completing the investigation . . .
“The MP and the PJ followed a different line of investigation from that used in Pedrogao, which did not involve blaming local politicians and Civil Protection for omission or for lack of clearing the forest. ‘In most of these October fires, an attempt was made to find out material intentional authorship. But it was not always possible to reach a conclusion about identity,’ explained a judicial source.”
There is a technical report of the Great Fire commissioned by the government and prepared by the Center for Studies on Forest Fires of the University of Coimbra, under the coordination of researcher Domingos Xavier Viegas, the same group which undertook a study of the Pedrogao Grande fire.
The report revealed that “many ignitions resulted from burnings and fires caused by people who carried them out due to the need to eliminate vegetation” or waste from farms in the conviction that there would be rain, as had been announced.” But the rain was delayed and only started to fall at the end of the 16th. The tragedy was then irreversible.”
It seemed to be an endless summer. Each afternoon, I pulled down the shades in my house to stop it from heating up like an oven. For the first time, friends’ wells were going dry. Although I love the heat, this weather pattern seemed wrong . . . creepily wrong.
Then, on Sunday, October 15th, the sun alternated between clouding with smoke and shining an eerie red. I took in clothes from a line so that they would not smell. Fires in central Portugal were a regular summer occurrence, but this was autumn.
Furious winds of Hurricane Ophelia howled into the region, which had been praying for rain. That night, my 14-year-old son and I stared into the large red mouths of six fires rushing in columns across our neighbors’ land toward us. We turned and ran for our lives in the opposite directions.
We got into our car and drove to the village entrance. Fire engulfed the road on the left from Ervedal and on the right from Carregal do Sal. I turned right for a very short way. Thick smoke, my son’s warning and memories of the photographs of burned-out cars in Pedrogao Grande forced me to turn around.
I drove the car to the stone-paved village square, where we witnessed red embers falling around us. We were trapped in our village. We could not get out, and firefighters could not get in. The car, sealed to eye-stinging smoke, could not shut out the dragon roar of wind and fire.
We waited for five hours. It felt like 15 minutes.
My son and I were lucky. We survived that hellish night. Bernarda Matias and 49 others did not.
“I have never seen anything like this in my life,” said my neighbor, Jose Barra, 77, in the village of the municipality of Oliveira do Hospital, where 10 died and more than 100 lost their homes. Two fires, coming from Nelas in the north and Seia from the east, savaged the parish and the town of Oliveira do Hospital.
“In June 2017, for the first time in our latitudes, Portugal suffered a new type of fire, unknown to this date by the scientific community, a sixth-generation mega-fire linked to global change,” World Wildlife Fund, Spain wrote in the Mediterranean Burns (2019).
“Extreme, uncontrollable and lethal. A type of fire that was repeated again that same year in Portugal and Spain, and a year later in Greece.”
In several weeks of the summer of 2022, amidst a severe drought when temperatures hit more than 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), Portugal stayed on maximum alert. Firefighters got fires under control only to have many reignite the next day.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that the last decade was the hottest one on record, reported BBC News (December 2, 2020).
“The state of our planet is broken,” said Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal. “Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal. Nature always fights back and is doing so with gathering force and fury. We have an emergency.
“But I have hope. Now, we must declare a permanent ceasefire with nature and reconcile with nature.”