British company claims 40-50% of Portugal’s fire damage could have been avoided

In the fast-moving aftermath of October 15’s devastating forest fires, a number of facts and ways forwards have been established.

■ Fact one: everything IS going to change, in terms of fire prevention, combat and forestry management.
■ Fact two: the government has approved a €400 million package of relief to power reconstruction in ravaged areas.
■ Fact three: Brussels has pledged “all mechanisms possible” to help Portugal’s recovery and promises that money spent will not be weighed against the country’s deficit.
■ Fact four: despite a marked loss in overall popularity, the government has not been toppled by a right-wing motion of no-confidence, and continues to vow that “nothing can remain as it was before”.

But there are still big questions as to how its new approach will work.

For instance, last Saturday’s Council of Ministers established that the Armed Forces would be “back in the firefighting frontline”.

Already, teams of soldiers have been posted up and down the country as fire risks remain at maximum almost everywhere.

But no sooner had the ‘extraordinary changes’ been announced than the Armed Forces were openly querying how they could physically fill their new roles – from how they could afford them, to how they could man them (manpower is purportedly running at a 3,000-4,000 deficit) and what planes would they be flying when the need arises.

Amid the uncertainty came the claim from a British tech company that a huge part of the areas that burned uncontrollably on October 15 are sitting on “enormous underground reservoirs of water”.

Ioniq Global has had experience of this country’s corridors of power, and how things ‘work’ in Portugal.

Chief operating officer Damon Walker has told the Resident that his organisation is “in despair”.

The company’s maps, created through the analysis of ‘advanced electro-magnetic data’, can pinpoint water in all its forms.

Walker explained earlier this year: “Water has a unique and distinctive digital footprint which remains constant through analysis. The frequencies we have stored allow us to understand whether it is liquid, ice or steam.

“In effect, the data allows us to predict with a high degree of accuracy the quality of the water before it is drilled.”

Ioniq’s business is in mapping all kinds of underground resources and selling the data direct to governments. In this case, the company says it is willing to give the Portuguese executive all its data on water reserves beneath national territory to ensure that nothing can indeed ever “remain the same” in terms of loss of life and property.

As Walker told us earlier this week, “containment is key”.

“With what we know is underground, the government could create firebreaks at points where the water can be pumped out.”

Had such a system been in place, “the authorities could have contained these latest fires by up to 40-50%”, he said.

The problem is that up till now Ioniq “has just come up against brick walls” in Lisbon where the status quo is focused on the issuing contracts for concessions, not exploiting resources direct.

Whether publication of Ioniq’s offer can change this impasse remains to be seen, while keen focus in the reconstruction aftermath will be on how the government sanctions forestry recovery – on Saturday put into the hands of a mission headed by a former ‘employee’ from the pulp industry.

On multiple levels, Tiago Martins Oliveira is the perfect man for the job of formulating what will be called the “Integrated System of Rural Fire Management”. He has a doctorate in Forestry and Natural Resources, a degree in Forestry Engineering, a Master’s in Natural Resource Management, experience as a firefighter and forestry sapper, and has worked on forestry conservation and management in the governments of Durão Barroso (PSD) and José Sócrates (PS).

But on the basis of his two decades working for the Portucel Soporcel paper group – now renamed The Navigator – left-wing politicians and environmental groups are dubious that he will be able to effect any real change.

The issue – according to so many, from experts to laypeople – is in the chaotic spread of eucalyptus trees that not only explode during wildfires, but shoot out blazing seed pods that can land up to 100 metres away “where they quickly burrow and send up treelings within days” (this last comment coming from a reader in Australia who tells us the eucalyptus is not called ‘the widow-maker’ for nothing).

Can Martins Oliveira take on his former bosses and insist on limiting areas of eucalyptus plantations?

According to reports, the pulp lobby is already warning against the financial consequences of any limits to the national supply chain.

But the truth of where Portugal needs to go could not have been better explained than by 400 noble cork oaks (‘sobreiros’) that literally saved the community that values and loves them from destruction on an early morning in June.

Jornal i has visited the community of Ferraria de São João and seen for itself the “green circle”, delineated by a charred no-man’s-land of eucalyptus.

“The fires came down the hillside in a raging front, and then stopped. There were no helicopters. Just two fire trucks, one at each end (of the front), but there came a point when these ran out of water,” wrote the paper. “It was the cork oaks, the mascots of that village, guarding the homes of its 38 residents, that stopped the blaze. Never in recent history had anyone realised how much those trees could make a difference.”

Says Jornal i, the village’s victory should now become a case study to ensure that nothing, truly, can be left to ‘remain the same’. N.D.

To read Loetje Loe’s personal account of how the fires affected her valley, in the Coimbra district )click here).