A total of 108 people, many of them firefighters, perished in what has been an unprecedented year for Portugal in terms of wildfires.
Fires have this year consumed the biggest amount of land ever. To date, flames have destroyed an area 44 times the size of Lisbon.
This month alone more land has burned than in any year in the past decade.
The total for the year so far stands at 520,000 hectares, or 5.5 percent of Portuguese territory.
On a monetary level, the devastation caused by this year’s fires is estimated to cost at least €1.3 billion.
Previous records, according to data from the Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests (ICNF), said the worst years for forest fires were recorded in 2003 (425,839 hectares) and 2005 (339,089 hectares).
While the rest of Europe has also been subjected to wildfires, the total area burned in Portugal this year is already more than half that registered in the European Union.
This comes as a series of wildfires flared up in central and northern Portugal over the weekend.
With the horrors of the Pedrógão Grande fires, that claimed 64 lives, still fresh in the memories of Portuguese, it came as a shock that history had repeated itself so swiftly and with similar devastation four months later.
As news started emerging that dozens of people had once again lost their lives, Home Affairs Minister Constança Urbano de Sousa handed in her resignation on Wednesday morning.
It came hours after President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa had called for political accountability and even asked Parliament to ponder whether the current government deserved its confidence in the wake of the weekend wildfires.
The outgoing minister, in her open resignation letter, revealed that she had offered to quit in June after the wildfires that claimed 64 lives, but was convinced to remain in office by Prime Minister António Costa.
She repeated her request after 44 people died this past weekend.
She said she has prepared the ground for policy changes expected to be adopted by the
The outgoing Minister said: “Although the tragedy (last weekend) was caused by multiple factors, I came to the conclusion that I could not continue for political and personal reasons.”
Minister Urbano de Sousa had been under severe political pressure in recent weeks to quit. Investigations into the June wildfire deaths, which all occurred in one night, found numerous shortcomings in the official response, which all fell under her responsibility.
Prime Minister António Costa shortly afterwards named Eduardo Cabrita as Constança de Sousa Urbano’s replacement.
The resignation comes as a failure in the communications system during the deadly June fire in Pedrógão Grande is believed to have contributed to the lack of coordination on the part of the firefighting and rescue services.
These are among the conclusions contained in the report ‘The complex of fires in Pedrógão Grande and surrounding municipalities’, which was submitted on Monday by Coimbra University’s Centre of Studies on Forest Fires to the government and published by Lusa News Agency.
Portugal’s prime minister said in the wake of these recent fires that the cabinet would be meeting this weekend to discuss ways of acting on the report’s findings.
The report, drafted by Domingos Xavier Viegas, states that “the system of communications by radio and by telephone suffered a general failure in the whole region, both because of limitations inherent to the systems, such as its lack of protection against exposure to fire, and because of being overloaded by users, and also because of deficient use of some of the systems”.
It added that this situation was “aggravated by the lack of availability of complementary means [of communication] due to the lack of planning.”
This failure, the report went on, “is believed to have contributed to the lack of coordination of the firefighting and rescue services, to the difficulty in requesting help on the part of residents, and to the worsening of the consequences of the fire.”
The report was commissioned by the government amid pressure from the political opposition in the wake of the June fires.
According to the report, the failure of communications was not a decisive factor in the initial phase of the fire in Escalos Fundeiros, from its detection to around 6pm or 7pm on 17 June, at which time “control over the fire was lost”.
However, in the critical period between 7pm and 10pm “the lack of communications, between the Operational Command Post and the forces … on the ground, is believed to have been very important”, both in failing to respond to calls for help and in coordinating resources.
“We cannot understand the lack of care of those in charge of communications since this was not the first recorded report of a collapse of communications,” the report notes.
“Even at the level of mobile antennas, it is unacceptable that none were operational.”
The report calls for “operators to be obliged to reinforce mobile communications in a very short space of time, with the aid of mobile antennas as happens in major sporting events and in other events that involve large numbers of people.”
The report also proposes that the emergency communications system, SIRESP, should have more mobile antennas functioning, that it increases its bandwidth, and possibly “educate users of the network to be able to use it more efficiently, so as to avoid unnecessary communications or [ones] that may be made on other networks.”
It recommends that a communications plan should be drafted for each theatre of operations.
Meanwhile, protests are planned for this weekend in an effort to press the government into taking more decisive action.
Authorities say arsonists are to blame for starting most of the wildfires, with the number of arrests already up to 153 for the year, triple the 53 people that were detained in 2016. According to police figures, of the 152 suspected wildfire arsonists, 20 are said to have been women.
While almost ten thousand investigations into fires were launched last year, fewer than 200 of these cases made it to the country’s courts.