LOCAL câmara heads, fire chiefs and forestry companies have expressed outrage at the government’s decision to completely exclude the Algarve from its new strategy to prevent forest fires. Hundreds of hectares of land in the Algarve were ravaged by fires last year, but the government seems to have overlooked this fact when it drew up its recently launched forest protection plan.
The scheme involves drafting in more than 26,000 soldiers to help in the prevention and combat of fires – but only in central and northern areas of the country. The plan, jointly presented by Paulo Portas and Sevinate Pinto, the Defence and Agriculture Ministers respectively, defines several ‘priority zones’ for army intervention. These are the zones of Lamego, Chaves and Vila Real in the north, the central coastal area, and the Serra da Sintra zone – the Algarve is completely excluded.
Responding to critics, the Minister of Agriculture claimed he was not concerned by the region’s omission from the possibility of military assistance. He claimed there were other fire prevention plans in place, specifically designed for the Algarve’s woodland and forestry zones. He went on to say that it would be difficult to implement the military plan in the Algarve for “logistical reasons”. Pinto explained his decision to exclude the Algarve by saying that the north of the country had been the most badly affected by last year’s blazes. But Carlos Tuta, President of Monchique Câmara, one of the Algarvean concelhos that was devastated in last year’s disaster, is outraged by the exclusion. He is also alarmed by the claim that alternative plans designed specifically for the region are in place. “It’s shameful,” he commented. “It’s almost as though we’re not in Portugal. Nothing surprises me though, even after months of fires that devastated the country in general and my municipality in particular. The government’s attitude seems incomprehensible to me. Their indifference continues – since last year’s fires nothing has been done at all.”
Macário Correia, president of the Algarve Metropolitan Area, also said he found it very difficult to understand the government’s reasoning: “It doesn’t seem to me to be reasonable to exclude the Algarve because of alleged logistical difficulties. There are military installations here which are capable of permitting the development of an operation of this kind. I have already spoken to the Secretary of State for Forestry about the subject and this decision can be reversed.”
Meanwhile Vilarim Reis, Operational Commander of the Algarve bombeiros, warned that the decision could have serious consequences: “We are used to being forgotten. I don’t know what led the government to take these discriminatory measures. Maybe they think the entire Algarve has already burned away. The fire season is fast approaching, but up until now we have not been heard about any plans to reinforce protection, which leaves me worried.”
Emilio Vidigal, President of the Associação Produtores Florestais do Barlavento Algarvio (Barlavento Forestry Producers) also said he did not believe that there were adequate safeguards in place against fires. “Months have passed by since the last fires and there are still no concrete measures in place to tackle this summer’s fires,” he said.
• The biggest fires of last summer in the Algarve and Alentejo occurred in Nisa (July 30 – 41,079 hectares), Portimão (August 7 – 25,900 hectares) and Monchique/Silves (September 10 – 27,617 hectares). This year, as an added safety measure, the government is set to prohibit fireworks and bonfires in rural areas between July 1 and September 30, a time of acute danger. Although it is designed to prevent forest fires, this new ban will not only hurt the pyrotechnic industry, but could also spell the end of popular parties in rural zones, events that frequently boast firework displays as their principal attraction.