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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Portugal: Arson Caused Half of 2020 Forest Fires

Updated: Dec 11, 2021

The author gets ready to bush-cut her 1.6 hectares, or 4 acres (Photo by Betsy Steel)


Dry weather and warm temperatures in central Portugal are signs of spring, when the ritual of bush-cutting begins as a deterrent to wildfires. Most landowners will cut three times by early summer. After the mega-fire of October 2017, where there were trees, there are now fields of white and yellow broom as tall as a person and mimosa towering over everything.

Uncleared land, non-native flammable eucalyptus trees, hot temperatures, no rain and high winds contribute to forest fires.

Arson is another key factor.

Already, there have been 342 forest fires this year, according to SIC Noticias (March 25). Eight people have been detained for arson, and 99 intentional fires have been identified by authorities.

“Oliveira de Azemeis: GNR (Republican National Guard) apprehends two arsonists,” Correiro de Manha reported on April 6. “A man of 61 and a woman of 41 started forest fires in two separate incidents on March 31 and April 1.”

Last year, half of the forest fires in Portugal were criminal, according to SIC Noticias.

The Agency for the Integrated Management of Rural Fires (AGIFR) stated that there were 6,257 records in 2020: 4,892 crimes and 51 detainees for forest fire crimes, in a year with 9,690 rural fires, ‘which resulted in 67,000 hectares of burnt area’, reported TSF (March 4).

Rural fires are one of the priorities of investigative crime for 2020-2022 along with domestic violence, marital homicide and cybercrime, according to Observador (June 29, 2020.)

Who is starting fires? More to the point, who is not?

Lumber company owners, said Judiciary Police specialist Cristina Soeiro, who has spent years identifying the characteristics of Portuguese forest arsonists. Soeiro, who is a psychologist, said that it is a myth that lumber companies are largely responsible for the phenomenon of forest fires, reported Publico (July 23, 2019).

People doing it for the money?

Soiero said: “Those that have material rewards as their main motivation are the least frequent, although this is where the use of more sophisticated ignition techniques arises.”

So, who is starting forest fires?

People who suffer from mental disorders, “where there is cognitive deficit, alcoholic dementia and, also, problems with impulse control,” Soeiro said in a training course at the Center for Judicial Studies in April 2019 (Publico). In a paper, she also cited people with schizophrenia, depression and few social competencies.

“As a rule, in these cases, there is not even any relationship between the arsonist and the owner of the land that has been torched.”

Forest fire arsonists are more likely to be men and solitary: 90 percent are male, Soiero wrote in Forest Fires, Criminal Profiles and Intervention Strategies: Challenges for the Justice System? Her paper is one of nine, written by experts, in Forest Fire Crime:Penal Jurisdiction published by the Center for Judiciary Studies in April 2018.

“In the case of women, their behaviors may appear associated with phases of the life cycle where problems of relationships are evident” such as failing marriages.

Both male and female aggressors have low educational levels, Soiero said in Publico.

She described a subgroup of young aggressors “whose criminal behavior is associated with a lack of impulse control and fascination with fire.”

Studies of forest arsonists show that in about 50 percent of cases, there was alcohol consumption while 25 percent of the aggressors presented indicators of mental illness with an emphasis on cognitive deficit.

Pyromania is an impulse control disorder in which people start fires in order to relieve tension or for instant gratification. Is pyromania a cause of forest fires?

Rarely. Pyromania, itself, is a rare condition.

Some forest fire arsonists are recidivists.

“Twenty percent of arsonists detained this year were repeat offenders. . . . Of the 54 arsonists detained by the PJ (Judiciary Police) until the end of last week, 11 of them were repeat offenders,” reported Diario Noticias (August 30, 2020).

How do recidivists act?

Often, they start fires near their homes or workplaces. Sometimes they watch the fire, and sometimes they help fight it. The devices used are simple and, in most instances, the direct flame.

Vandalism is more common in young aggressors and done in groups.

In spite of all that is known about forest fire arsonists, it is difficult to apprehend them.

“There is rarely direct evidence (confession, eyewitnesses). The wild places chosen for igniting are isolated. The time . . . is at night,” wrote Cristina Santos in her Forest Fire Crime paper, Three Substantive Questions and Procedures in the Crime of Forest Fires.

Santos also cited the perpetrator’s psychological profile, which causes problems of evidential evaluation, namely, the statements of the agent and the need to conduct expertise in psychiatric disorders. More than the defendant’s lack of cooperation (the right to which he or she is entitled) are sometimes the different versions presented throughout the process, which leads to evaluation problems.

Additionally, there are difficulties, doubts and obstacles to the use of some means of obtaining evidence such as wiretapping. Also, there are difficulties in gathering material evidence that has not been swallowed. This is not the case in which the perpetrator acted negligently and, therefore, did not take care in covering up the crime.

Lastly, sophistication of the ignition device, such as flying devices, which allow ignition from a distance makes it hard to track perpetrators.

What happens if a perpetrator is apprehended, tried in court and found to be guilty?

Article 274 of the Penal Code says:

“Whoever causes a fire on land occupied by forest, including woods, or pasture, bush, spontaneous vegetation formations or on agricultural land, owned by themselves or by an unrelated party, is punished with imprisonment from 1 to 8 years.”

“It is uncommon for courts to apply effective prison sentences to arsonists,” prosecutor Jose Niza said in the training session in April 2019 (Publico). According to 2014 data, only 7 percent of people tried for this crime ended up in prison.

“The person who benefits most is the offender. Who loses is the forest ecosystem, the offended citizen, justice and the country. So, in the end, all of us.”

Niza argued for the urgency for judges and prosecutors to receive specific training in this matter, given its complexity and the difficulties with regard to the collection of evidence.

“In 2017, a legislative change allowed the penalties applied by the courts in these cases to be served at home with an electronic bracelet, if they did not exceed two years, and on a non-continuous basis,” according to Publico (July 23, 2019).

“Objective: to arrest arsonists at home during the hottest months, keeping them free for the rest of the year. Judging by the numbers, the application of these measures did not have much support: only seven people are currently benefitting from this possibility.

“In Portuguese prisons, 53 people are incarcerated due to forest fire, and there are still 23 others hospitalized in psychiatric institutions.”

Psychologist Cristina Soeira said in Diario Noticias: “If there were . . . more effective treatment of addictions, together with a solid intervention in the formation of citizenship duties, the scenario could be different.”

In the meantime, arsonists burn the countryside (Diario Noticias, August 30, 2020):

- Unemployed, 45, he set fire to 13 different sites in Tondela for more than two weeks until he was detained by the Republican National Guard (GNR) and Judicial Police on June 19, 2020. He burned an entire forested area next to houses and, according to JP, the fires would have had more serious proportions had there not been a rapid intervention by firefighters and aerial means.”

- The next day, a 59-year-old shepherd, suspected of starting three fires, was arrested in Gouveia in Guarda District. He told JP that “using the direct flame, making use of the lighter he was carrying and which was seized, he lit pasture and undergrowth at three different points.” He also had a record for this type of crime;

- On August 17, the JP arrested a 53-year-old man in connection with three forest fires in the Santo Tirso area in Porto District. The alleged perpetrator has a history of two previous fire crimes, said the police.

The youngest person serving house arrest was 14 years old and wants to become a firefighter, according to Diario Noticias (August 30, 2020). He confessed to a fire in the village of Granja in the Sao Joao da Pesqueira area in Viseu District.

“Had it not been for the prompt and effective intervention of the firefighters, who also relied on the involvement of an aerial environment, the fire could have quickly evolved over a vast area of adult pines and some haystacks in that village, said the JP in a statement.

“The aforementioned minor will have acted in a context susceptible to showing a worrying tendency to arson since he expresses a desire to be a firefighter and to appreciate the performance of these professionals.”

The oldest under house arrest was 80 years old. The man “lived alone and, for three consecutive days, with the use of a gas torch and a lighter, he started several fires”, according to the police. However, the investigation found that the detainee had been committing identical and continued crimes of arson since 2019.

Arson . . . it’s complicated.

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