The fires in Portugal received international news coverage thanks to the sheer size of the blaze and the number of personnel involved, while a dense “cloud” of smoke also formed over the Extremadura area of Spain thanks to the burning in Portugal.
The largest of the fires began in central Portugal in the Castelo Branco district earlyin the afternoon of 20 July. Two of the fires originated in Sertã and one in Vila de Rei, with the latter spreading on Saturday to the municipality of Mação, Santarém district, while in the Algarve over 200 firefighters and personnel tackled a blaze that began near Vale da Telha on 19 July but was under control the following day.
The fire in Vila de Rei and Mação has burnt more than 9,500 hectares of forest, about half of this year’s burned area, according to the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS). At the time of going to press the fire was considered to be “in resolution” but there were still more than 700 personnel involved in the operation and five aircraft.
According to Paula Neto of the National Institute of Emergency Medical, the fire in central Portugal resulted in 41 people being assisted by the authorities, 17 of whom were considered to be injured, with one in a serious condition.
Investigations into the cause of the fires in Castelo Branco are already underway by PJ police who, according to Lusa, have already begun to collect evidence of a criminal nature regarding the fires, including artefacts that may have been at the source of the fire found in the area.
The outbreak of three fires in such close proximity around the same time have been seen by police as suspicious.
A spokesman from the Bombeiros told newspaper Expresso: “The fires all came at the same time and in the same area. This geographical continuity is a strange coincidence”
Setting fire to forest areas on purpose is not a new phenomenon in Portugal and this was highlighted by the arrest of a 55 year old man on 21 July in the Castelo Branco area on suspicion of arson.
A police statement said: “The suspect set a fire in a forest area with a direct flame, which would have caused serious problems if it hadn’t been for the quick intervention of the Castelo Branco firefighters”.
While the authorities investigate the possibility of arson relating to the fires, experts have come forward to lament the “imposing position” of the government when it comes to enforcing land clearance laws to help prevent fires.
Luciano Lourenço, from the research centre of forest fires of the University of Coimbra, told Lusa that the state has placed itself in an “enforceable position”, producing legislation and enforcing it “rather than working with citizens” who do not normally participate in the drafting of laws relating to them but suffer the consequences of the fires.
In addition, citizens “often end up unable to understand their own legislation,” warned Luciano Lourenço, advocating awareness among the populations through the work of municipalities.
“Forest fires are essentially a social problem, they are a social risk and that is where they have to be attacked. Until they are addressed in this way, we will most likely continue to have forest fires and large forest fires, because without the involvement of populations, forest owners and forest agents we will not be able to find a way to manage forests against fires”, said the researcher who added that technological solutions are important but insufficient to solve the problem.
Fire ecology expert Joaquim Sande Silva has also called for a “revolution” in fighting fires in Portugal. He stressed that there is no short-term information regarding last weekend’s fire in Vila de Rei and that a report into the incident still needs to be concluded to ascertain the reasons why the fire progressed as it did.
However, he highlighted the fact that the firefighting system has not changed significantly since 2017, so different results cannot be expected.
“The system has not really undergone a revolution,” he said, underlining that “the protagonists of fire fighting remain the same”, with “the same competencies, same attitude, the same discipline and the same organisation.”
Sande Silva stressed that the creation of a more professional body was a proposal made in 2005, following the 2003 fires, “and was rejected”.
“I think that sooner or later we have to evolve. The Spaniards have evolved their approach a long time ago and other countries have evolved accordingly, ” he said.
Meanwhile, David Thomas President of Safe Communities Portugal stated: “The fires demonstrated to me the new tactic of a “muscular” approach by using aerial means at the earliest stages has had an impact in extinguishing most of the fires at the earliest stages. The Government decision to increase the number of GIPS (Mountain Support Team) to over a 1,000 and increase the availability of aircraft and helicopters is therefore bearing some fruit.
“However, should this not be successful, the fires can spread as we saw at an alarming speed, depending on wind, humidity and temperatures, not to mention the topography in the area concerned. In two days the Vale de Rei fire spread 25 kilometres from its originating point; that’s just over 10 seconds a metre”.
He added: “During our monitoring of the situation the subject was raised that sometimes people do not see fire fighters and are left to their own devices. In one case doubts over the official statistics were raised concerning the number of firefighters actually deployed according to ANEPC figures. It is important to bear in mind that these figures include: those who are taking much needed rest breaks; those withdrawn from the fire fronts as it is too dangerous, those rotating between shifts and those carrying out logistical support duties like drivers. In addition these figures include Civil Protection, GNR, INEM and other emergency personnel”.
Civil Protection recommends that people adapt their behaviours and attitudes towards the dangers of rural fires by adopting necessary preventative and precautionary measures while also being aware about the possibility of rural fires developing locally.
David stated “Because fire-fighting personnel cannot be everywhere, it is vitally important that people are aware of the self-protection measures namely the Safe Village – Safe People programme. There are many elderly people who have no access to the internet, so I would ask those in remote areas who have internet access, to print the details in Portuguese and the other languages available and share with them.“
Continued high temperatures and low humidity levels have led to Portuguese Civil Protection to issue a warning to all citizens regarding the “worsening risk of fire” across the country. While current weather forecasts show a drop in temperature over the weekend in many parts of the country, temperatures are set to rise again by the beginning of the week.