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Portugal's Fires: "No One Is Safe"

Updated: Aug 1


Fighting a fire that burned a shed of firewood beside a house in Macieira (Photo by Paulo Novais/Lusa)

 

Wildfires raged over much of Portugal, rekindling nightmarish memories of the deadly fires of 2017.


Flames swallowed the life’s work of farmers and robbed the peace of mind of some, for example, at Quinta do Lago in Almancil in the Algarve, who bought luxury homes there because they thought that it was safe from fire.


"No one is safe", said an editorial in Correio da Manha (July 15). Last week’s conflagrations proved that. Those accustomed to seeing the interior of the country burning on television news also saw the fire of Caneças threaten houses near Lisbon, and the fire of Palmela burned less than 30 minutes from the capital. Flames cut across two national highways: A1 and A29.


Andre Rafael Serra, a pilot of an amphibious plane, was killed fighting the fire at Vila Nova de Foz Coa in the district of Guarda.


On July 10, 1,000 firefighters and 14 airplanes and helicopters attacked blazes all over the country, reported SIC Noticias (July 10).


Portugal ranked third for the percentage of land burned among the countries of the European Union, which include Spain, France, Italy, Croatia, and Greece, reported SIC Noticias (July 17).


Amidst a severe drought and unrelenting temperatures of more than 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), the country stayed on maximum alert.


“(Portugal) burns because the weather is getting more and more complicated with climate change, because there is a lack of adaptation of the forest to these conditions and because there continues to be negligent behaviors that must have zero tolerance,” said specialist Francisco Castro Rego, who chaired the Independent Technical Observatory, the body appointed by the Assembly of the Republic to assess fires in the country, to Expresso (July 15).


The Guarda Nacional Republicana (GNR) detained 52 people for the crime of setting forest fires, reported Correio da Manha (July 15). Most occurred in the district of Viseu (11) followed by Vila Real (10) and Guarda (7). The government explained that 13% of the fires were set intentionally; 66% began with intentional vegetation fires, and 4% with the use of farm and forest machinery. In other words, 83% of the fires were started by human hands.


“Barbecuing, burning or using machinery, such as chainsaws in rural areas, at this time, is a crime,” said Tiago Oliveira, president of the Agency for the Integrated Management of Rural Fires (AGIF) and former official of the Navigator paper and pulp company, which grows the controversial flammable eucalyptus. “A spark released over very dry vegetation is enough to start a fire that, with wind, spreads quickly.”


A total of 9,536 hectares burned in the first 13 days of July, or the equivalent of 46% of that burnt this year, reported Expresso. On July 14, the day of the most ignitions – 171 registered by the National Emergency and Civil Protection Agency (ANEPC) – 3,200 hectares were consumed by flames. On that day, there were fires, among many others, Seia in Guarda District, Mangualde in Viseu District, Palmela in Setubal District, Oliveira do Azemeis in Aveiro District, and in Santarem and Castelo Branco districts.


There are 3.2 million hectares of forested land recorded in the sixth National Forest inventory, or one-third of the country, according to Florestast (October 13, 2020).


Between July 8 and July 13, 778 fled their homes, and 135 were injured, according to Expresso.


The burned area “is 48% below the predicted burned area taking into account the verified meteorological severity”, according to the Institute for the Conservation of Nature and Forests (ICNF).


Tiago Oliveira, a forestry engineer and AGIF president, said that there were “fewer ignitions (compared with a similar year of 2003) especially in the interior, where there is a lot of fuel continuity, and improvements in the initial attack to fight the fires.”


In 2003, nine died and 120,000 hectares burned as a result of more than 7,000 fires, reported Diario de Noticias (June 1, 2018). In 2015, the forest lost more than 12,000 hectares.


So many fires happening at once complicate operations, said Andre Fernandes, national commander of the National Emergency and Civil Protection Agency (ANEPC), but we have much more efficiency and effectiveness of action than we had in 2017.


The year 2017 was Portugal’s deadliest for forest fires with more than 100 losing their lives. Two fires dominated the national psyche: the Pedrogao Fire in June in Central Portugal and the Great Fire in October in Central and North Portugal and northwestern Spain in which 97 percent of the municipality of Oliveira do Hospital burned, much to the shock of everyone. That year, fires consumed more than 442,000 hectares, according to the Institute for the Conservation of Nature and Forests (ICNF), reported Diario de Noticias (June 1, 2018).


One significant improvement in firefighting since 2017 is the ability to map digitally and monitor fires in real time, said Brigadier-General Paulo Viegas Nunes, president of SIRESP (Sistema Integrado do Redes de Emergencia e Segurança) since April, reported Expresso (July 15).


Created in 2006, the SIRESP network is the exclusive communications network of the Portuguese State for the command, control and coordination of communications in all emergency and security situations. It responds to the needs of more than 40,000 users and annually supports more than 35 million calls, according to its website.


At the Pedrogao Grande fire trial to determine possible criminal responsibility for the deaths of 63 and the injuries of 44, the former Minister of Internal Administration Constança Urbano de Sousa testified in April that there were communication failures “namely, the SIRESP network”.


Francisco Castro Rego, a forestry engineer, recognized the importance of the digital-map development, but he criticized “the stray formation” of the various entities that make up the management system of rural fires.


In a country where 98% of the land is privately owned (10% community-owned) and 2% belongs to the state, it continues to delay the change from a landscape of mosaics and less continuity of pine and eucalyptus, wrote Expresso.


Tiago Oliveira, president of AGIF and former official of The Navigator Company, said that the State has to review the legislation of the successor regime, establishing a deadline for the shares to be allocated and the land parcels to be delivered to those who will manage them, according to Expresso.


When forest reform was taken to Parliament in 2018, the Government wanted to create a land bank with the land that did not have a defined and living owner, but it was not approved with opposition from PCP (Partido Comunista Portugues) who argued on the side of property rights, according to Expresso.


Then, the proposed legislation tried to limit the division of lands in cases of inheritance, where there can be many shares of holdings with several heirs of small properties, said Expresso, which continued:


“In May, the secretary of state for forestry told Expresso that the Government is going to accelerate the forced lease of land.”


In the meantime, Portugal decided to leave the State of Contingency in the late morning of July 17 but remain on alert, reported Publico (July 17). Three hundred firefighters are combatting fires, but temperatures are falling. Fires can be tracked on a map. The State of Contingency will end at 23:59 on July 17, reported SIC Noticias (July 17).


On July 19, the government will re-evaluate the situation. A State of Contingency allows all emergency and civil protection plans to be activated automatically, according to The Portugal News (July 11).


So ends what SIC Noticias television news reader, Bento Rodrigues, called Portugal's "week in hell" on the July 17 broadcast.





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