The commander of the Portuguese firefighting services, Jaima Marta Soares, has countered the current theory advanced by the government of Lisbon, which defends that the disastrous fires raging through the center of the country since last weekend were caused by uncommon weather conditions. Soares said today to the Portuguese news outlet TSF that he believes the fires were caused by criminal hand, remembering that the fires were already active two hours prior to the lightning said to have caused them.
The situation came in the wake of a severe heat wave and quickly evolved into a burning inferno that gobbled large swathes of land, destroying around 30,000 hectares of forest, according to the European Forest Fire Information System. Current casualties include 64 dead, most of whom died in the N-236 route, and more than 200 injured. In total, 27 villages had to be evacuated in the wake of the raging fires. Although the Portuguese firefighting corporations committed over 2,000 men to battle the flames, they still find themselves understaffed and under-equipped to deal with such a disaster. Personnel and equipment from several other countries were also deployed, including aircraft from Spain, France, and Italy.
The situation remains grave, and it reached a peak last Tuesday, when the command post near Góis was almost surrounded by the flames. For a time, the situation remained so chaotic that there was even a rumor that one of the firefighting planes had crashed, which proved to be false.
The Portuguese government reacted quickly, with President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa visiting the displaced and the firefighters to provide words of comfort and motivation. At the same time, governmental staff, including Prime Minister António Costa, declared that an investigation would be made to assess the causes of the fires, having advanced the previously mentioned hypothesis that lightning from one of the thunderstorms that passed through the country had struck a tree and sparked the conflagration.
Unfortunately, such situations are not unheard of in Portugal. Raging fires in the rural areas have been growing more common during the last couple decades, sparking doubts about what is going wrong with the country. Although the summers are becoming increasingly hotter and drier, many doubt that this is the only factor weighing in the now-annual drama of the forest fires.
The rural areas of the country have been suffering from depopulation as people move to the coastal areas in search of more job opportunities. Although this situation is not unique to Portugal, it has been hitting the country quite severely. This means that few people remain to tend to the land. The lack of vigilance also means that many fires are only detected when the situation has already become dire. There is also some finger-pointing done to the monocultures of eucalyptus trees. These plants, native to Australia, are highly flammable but are also very valued by the Portuguese cellulose processing industry. Earlier this year, the government of Antonio Costa banned more planting of these trees, a decision that was met with controversy.
Arson is also quite common, and many people are detained every year for suspicion of setting fire to the woodlands, but most are released afterward on the basis of lack of proof. Even so, the authorities defend that efforts are being made to deal with the criminal origin of many fires. This is in line with the statements made by Jaime Marta Soares, as he suspects that like many fires in the past, the current ones were also caused by criminal hand.
In truth, the plan to contend with fires was to be revised for several times during the last few years but was not seen as a priority. The Portuguese firefighting service is also mostly composed of volunteers, with very little professional personnel. There have been talks of involving the military in the firefighting efforts. While it is true that Army personnel are called in to provide support, as it happened this week, it is also true that the Portuguese Armed Forces do not have the training and equipment needed for firefighting. While some aircraft from the Air Force were deployed to observe the theater, there is a lack of dedicated firefighting planes, and most of the assets that exist in Portugal for that role are in private hands.
Generally speaking, Portugal has a severe lack of fire prevention policies, and while there is the notion that fires will happen and the authorities should be prepared for them, a lack of coordination and equipment failures still hamper most of the efforts in the field. Furthermore, the government has been accused of being negligent regarding the environmental issues faced by the country, reports the Los Angeles Times.
A slight improvement of the weather conditions and the efforts of the men and women on the ground has allowed for a calmer Wednesday, and there is hope that the current wave of forest fires will be contained soon. Still, summer is just beginning, and Portugal is bracing for yet another year of disastrous fires.
[Featured Image by Armando Franca/AP Images]