The aftermath of the fires this summer
The departures of the Minister of Internal Administration, quickly followed by the Secretary of State for International Administration, and the reported resignation of the President of the National Authority for Civil Protection (ANPC) are the political consequences of the terrible fires this year resulting in the deaths of over 100 people.
As a stark reminder of this, on October 27 the government announced the names of those who died in the Pedrogão fires – it makes for sad reading.
Since the start of the year, over 520,000 acres of land have been destroyed, 5.5% of Portugal’s entire area. As a result of the fires, which occurred between June 17 and 24, and between October 14 and 16, hundreds of people have lost their homes, farms, crops and businesses.
Following the fires in Pedrógão Grande and Góis, an independent inquiry was held into the fires and it was clear from this that a great deal of reform is required in terms of fire prevention, the structure of civil protection, command and coordination, technical communications, and the level of professionalism currently available, to name but a few.
From this it was determined that electricity discharges from overhead cables were the cause of the Pedrogão fire and is a matter of concern to many people where cables pass through their land.
As the Prime Minister said at the time, “nothing can remain as before”.
The Independent Technical Report comprising nearly 300 pages was completed in around three months, and was debated and endorsed by the Council of Ministers in a marathon 11-hour debate on October 21. The report covers the causes of the fires, how the emergency services responded, communications networks, command and co-ordination, as well as recommendations for the future.
There are many measures decided by the Council of Ministers, but I highlight a few which are perhaps some of the most important.
In moves to make infrastructures less amenable to catastrophe, the areas of protection adjacent to roads and railways will increase from three to 10 metres with protective strips around the villages, creating conditions for burying communications and electricity cables, and converting credits into SIRESP’s capital, for the improvement of its service and the training of its users.
There will also be a “full cleaning up to 10 metres” on both sides of the roads and railways. This is already a legal requirement but has been sadly neglected. Infraestruturas de Portugal will be in charge of this plan which shall be developed in 2018 (€28 million).
The creation of the “Young Volunteer for Nature and Forests” programme aims to ensure the effective implementation of a voluntary youth programme for the preservation of nature, forests and ecosystems, in particular the prevention of fires and other environmental disasters.
The creation of a “Population Cluster Protection Programme”, establishing structural measures for the protection of people and property, and those built at the urban-forest interface. This will include the implementation and management of buffer zones and strategic infrastructures, identifying critical and local points with the involvement of local authorities by mobilising the community.
Another will be the creation of a “Safe People” programme, promoting, as of January 2018, awareness-raising actions to prevent risk behaviours, self-protection measures and drill evacuation plans, in conjunction with local authorities – something Safe communities Portugal has already been doing for the last four years.
The creation of an automatic network of warnings to the population on days of high risk of fire (to prohibit the use of fire as well as other activities of risk) and measures of self-protection, directed to specific groups.
These last two measures are a move in the right direction as they effectively engage the community in creating greater awareness. There is clearly a need to educate certain groups, including elderly farmers who through the cleaning of land have caused many of these fires.
Professionalism and training
Training and professionalism among volunteer firefighters will be strengthened, “with professional teams formed at the Firemen’s School, which will be integrated into the formal system of education as a vocational school”.
The ANPC will have its own staff, adjusted to the risk profiles and duly equipped, with organised careers.
The Emergency Military Support of the Army will be developed, the Air Force will start managing the aircraft contracts involved in fighting the fires, and GNR’s GIPS coverage will be expanded to all the territory.
To date, some 72 reconstruction works have been completed in three municipalities of Pedrógão Grande, Castanheira de Pêra and Figueiró dos Vinhos, and a further 90 are in the construction phase.
Following the fires in October, there is to be immediate support measures to the affected populations, companies and farmers namely with €100 million of non-refundable support, a further €100 million of a loan line being set aside for business recovery and incentives to new investment (€50 million), to agricultural productions (€35 million), to employment and professional skills and to social security (€13 million) and to the reconstruction of dwellings (€30 million).
What we can all do
Although we are now in November, the country is still experiencing unseasonable hot weather, which together with the low humidly and high winds, means that fires can spread rapidly. As a consequence, the fire period which started on June 22 has been extended to November 15, believed to be the longest on record.
Apart from doing everything to prevent fires, we also have a role should a fire break out. People sometimes say that they had seen smoke or a fire, but did not call the emergency services, assuming that it was someone else’s responsibility. Not so! If you see a fire it is your responsibility to call 112 – every second counts.
By David Thomas
David Thomas is a former Assistant Commissioner of the Hong Kong Police, consultant to INTERPOL and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In October 2011 he founded Safe Communities Algarve an on-line platform www.safecommunitiesalgarve.com here in the Algarve to help the authorities and the community prevent crime. It is now registered as Associação SCP Safe Communities Portugal, the first national association of its type in Portugal, with a new website www.safecommunitiesportugal.com launched in May 2015. He can be contacted at email@example.com, or on 913045093 or at www.facebook.com/scalgarve