Armed Forces “back in the fight” against Portugal’s forest fires

Over a decade since their input was sidelined by a Socialist government, Portugal’s Armed Forces are to return to the fire-combat front line.

Yesterday’s 11-hour Council of Ministers approved an overhaul of the country’s much-maligned Civil Protection service – with the proverbial ‘gun at its head’ due to this summer’s appalling death toll in fires across the centre and north of the country.

Explains Lusa, the Armed Forces are to have “a reinforced role in the support of emergencies”, as much on the level of patrols, and in prevention.

Said prime minister António Costa, this “expanded military role” will involve the Air Force “managing and operating” its own firefighting planes, as well as managing the contracts of outside firefighting entities.

The government “also wants to return to the expansion of GNR GIPS (emergency intervention teams), while reinforcing the ANPC (national civil protection authority) with its own professionals, hired on merit, (as opposed to inside appointments).

The army too will be involved through its Emergency Military Support Regiment, and the State will take over a majority position in the SIRESP emergency communications network that has failed so often during the worst of the summer’s conflagrations.

Infrastructure minister Pedro Marques announced that the government means to acquire four new mobile stations with satellite links to ensure that communications in future do not fail, while other measures announced include the “full clearing of up to 10 metres” of road- and railsidings over an initial area of 16,000 kms (roads) and 2,500 kms (railways)

Marques added that there will also be incentives given to encourage the burying of current overhead cables managing road and rail networks.

As to the issue of “boots on the ground”, over €18 million will be going towards the hiring of 100 new teams of forestry sappers (500 men in all) – to join the current 292-man workforce – and 50 new ‘fire watchmen’.

The Economy ministry under Manuel Caldeira Cabral said the government means also to conduct studies into the creation of bio-refineries, designed to turn the combustible material ‘cleaned’ from forests into bio-fuel.

Cabral told one of the press briefings yesterday that the refineries would “encourage the recovery of forestry waste”.

Lusa added that “in relation to volunteer firefighters, the government wants to create professional teams in each firefighting association in areas of major fire risk”, explaining that these teams will involve firefighters professionally trained at the Escola de Bombeiros.

It was a huge day of decision-making after a week of criticism and ahead of a motion of no-confidence (click here).

PM António Costa said afterwards: “Civil Protection is not just for after calamities. It has to start with information given from schools to homes, so that all of us can be better prepared to protect ourselves from risks”.

How these measures translate, how they go down among the various political and interested parties and how citizens view this attempt by the government to ‘get back on top’ will become clearer during the course of next week.

For now, protests against this year’s killer wildfires have taken place in various parts of the country showing that populations have had their fill of incompetence and empty promises.

There has still been very little said about how to ‘reforest’ the devastated areas, which experts warn is fundamental in ensuring that wildfires on the level we have seen this year do not repeat themselves.

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