A nation mourns as fires continue

Saturday June 17 will go down as the day everything collapsed: 64 people burned to death in indescribable agony, or asphyxiated in stultifying heat by thick smoke. Over 160 injured. Hundreds left homeless – lives, livelihoods and in many cases spirits destroyed. Over 30,000 hectares of forest devastated by the deadliest fire tragedy the nation can remember. And the worst of it is that the horror of Pedrógão Grande could happen again ‘tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow’.

This is the truth that politicians are not yet prepared to face: Portugal has simply become ‘too vulnerable’. It has ceded to pressure from the cellulose industry to the point that it has more highly flammable ‘monocultures’ of eucalyptus per square metre than any other country in the world.

Add to this the chaos that passes for ‘forestry management’ – leaving main roads vulnerable to infernos as seen so tragically last weekend – the incidence of increasingly high temperatures, the lack of one force specifically charged with fire control and a country in which the interior has become ‘a desert’, and you have the toxic cocktail in which Portugal is now immersed.

The government’s mantra since the tragedy has been “let’s fight this first, and talk about the issues later”.

But as the first funerals take place under skies still clogged with advancing smoke (in one case, the funeral had to be delayed as the village was evacuated), fury is coming to the fore.

Media lawyer and television personality Pedro Proença put the gathering storm into an emotive post online:

“1000 million euros is what the State spends annually on “combatting” fires. It is the same every year. Into whose pockets do those 1000 million euros go? Ask the cellulose manufacturers, property speculators, aviation and helicopter bosses. Where is SIRESP (the national emergency communications network that ‘went down’ for hours during the start of these latest fires), the articulation between meteorologists, Civil Protection, the army and airforce? Where are the mechanisms that force landowners to clean the forests?

“Why isn’t our Air Force fighting the fire like in Spain, Italy, Greece and even Morocco? Is it just not to take business from the private sector?

“Why weren’t we all on maximum alert due to abnormal weather conditions?

“In the end, the blame is put on heat and dry thunder which had been forecast for days… And the party goes on.

“All it needs to satisfy Portugal, hiding between the euphoria of the economy, football and ‘festas’ is a dry thunderstorm.

“My heart goes out to the victims of Portugal – and yes, I too voted for this “fantasy land”. It is my fault too.”  

As we went to press on Wednesday – with fires still active on various fronts – lawyers were already discussing the possibility of survivors taking out lawsuits against the government for negligence.

But this would be a ‘complicated road’ and to be fair the tragedy of Pedrógão Grande cannot be laid at the feet of just one government.

Neglect, on all fronts, has been ongoing for decades.

TV commentator Francisco Moita Flores, 64, has remarked how he has been hearing successive governments promise forestry intervention/ strategic fire prevention since he was a child.

More to the point is that even with the best form of organisation (which Portugal does not have) the future would be an unknown.

As the world’s press follows Portugal’s ongoing drama  which has taken the lives of countless children seasoned firefighters in the US have explained: “The notion that firefighters will be able to put out, suppress and make safe a wildfire is becoming less and less of a reliable notion”.

Here, Público contributor climate change investigator João Camargo has warned that “conditions for the existence of tragedies like Pedrógão Grande will not only repeat during the coming summers, they will repeat during this summer”.

Horror ‘timeline’:

The drama began shortly before 3pm in Escalos Fundeiros (Pedrógão Grande). What appears to have been “a dry thunderstorm” sent lightning strikes onto land that was tinderbox dry.

Fanned by high winds and exceptional 40ºC+ temperatures, the blaze rapidly ‘became a monster’.

Survivors talk of a “tornado of fire”, “a hurricane”, that roared through communities, leaping across roads turned into deathtraps by sprawling vegetation.

Almost 50 people were killed in the very early stages after GNR police mistakenly channelled the cars of those trying to flee onto what has become known as the ‘road of death’: the EN236 – haunting images of which have now circled the globe.

The government’s €270 million emergency communications network SIRESP ‘collapsed’ in the ongoing nightmare and remained down for 11 crucial hours as the fire that began with a lightning strike sent its tentacles across three districts.

Emergency services have stressed that the official death count of 64 could change as operatives sift through hectares of debris.

Meantime, prime minister António Costa is demanding answers, the Public Ministry has opened an inquiry and the country waits to hear that fires raging for days have been finally dominated.

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