The fire which started last Friday has in the space of a week transformed the picturesque Monchique hillside into a barren wasteland, reminiscent of a war zone.
Being identified earlier this year as a primary area of concern in Portugal due to the high probability of wildfires, was not enough to stop Monchique and large parts of the countryside in neighbouring Silves being reduced to ashes.
At the time of going to press, officials said they had received reports of 32 people being injured (one seriously) as a result of the past week’s wildfires. Scores of people have also been placed in temporary housing facilities, including the Portimão Arena, after many of them lost their homes and possessions in the fires.
Prime Minister António Costa, addressing the press for the first time on the sixth day of the wildfires, said the decision earlier this week to move the central command centre from the Algarve to Lisbon did not translate into distrust or a sanction of the local operation, refuting claims this came as an after-thought.
This comes after the leader of the CDS-PP party, Assunção Cristas, said she was left confused by the time it took (five days) for the government to centralise operations in Lisbon.
The PSD party, the only other political party besides the CDS-PP to not support the ruling Socialists in Parliament, has meanwhile called on authorities to act swiftly and strongly against any individual or individuals, should it be found that there had been criminal activity involved in the past week’s wildfires.
This follows news that PJ Police and the Public Prosecutor’s office are investigating the causes of the fire.
The investigation is being spearheaded by the Faro Criminal Investigation Department.
The past week has also seen a number of arsonists arrested in other parts of the country, including a 68-year-old man caught on Tuesday trying to light fires in forested areas in the Setúbal area.
The Algarve branch of the PSD, in a statement sent to The Portugal News, lashed out at Home Minister Eduardo Cabrita, who had in the first days of the Monchique fire said “what is happening right now, throughout the weekend, is evidence of the work (of the past year) having been worthwhile and has produced results”, with the PSD calling these comments “absurd”.
The fire in Monchique has so far destroyed 22,000 hectares, which is roughly half the area that was burnt in the region in 2003, the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) said.
Last year, flames destroyed 440,000 hectares, the country’s worst year ever, according to the Portuguese national nature conservation institute.
The combat of the past week’s fires, which were out-of-control for lengthy periods, were hampered throughout by strong, gusting winds fuelling the flames, which raced through dry and largely inaccessible woodland.
The fire came within 500 metres of the fire department in Monchique, as officials evacuated scores of houses.
The firefighting effort drew criticism, with some claiming poor organisation thwarted the operation. Monchique was identified as a high risk area months ago.
Firefighting is co-ordinated by the Civil Protection Agency, a government body overseen by the Home Ministry, which oversees national defence.
The National Association of Professional Firemen and the Professional Firemen’s Trade Union issued a joint statement saying that the government’s recent reorganisation of firefighting capabilities needs to be reassessed and rethought. The organisations asked for a “very urgent” meeting with the home minister.
Portugal beefed up its wildfire response over the winter after 114 people died last year in forest blazes amid a severe drought.
Portugal endured some record heat last weekend when the wildfires first appeared, with temperatures exceeding 45C, which parched large areas.
For continuous updates on the latest of the fires in the Algarve, visit www.theportugalnews.com