One of the few photos Debby claims to have of her and Burt together ("he's hiding at the back", she tells us) The firefighters are some of the many crews who have received donated uniforms and equipment as a result of the support group's Herculean efforts

British Empire Medal for founder of Algarve’s ‘firefighter support brigade’

With the critical season for wildfires well and truly upon us – and fire stations up and down the country on heightened alert – news broke over the weekend that the effervescent founder of the Algarve’s forest fire alert association has been awarded the British Empire Medal “for services to the community in the Algarve, Portugal”.

For the seemingly-tireless Debby Burton, who launched “Associação para Alerta de Incêndio Florestal” three years ago, it was the moment she could finally ‘let on’.

Sworn to secrecy when first contacted back in April, she has now been inundated with congratulations from everyone who has come to discover the extraordinary worth of the association that runs a Facebook page giving the people of the Algarve and lower Alentejo up-to-the-minute information on any local fires underway.

Insisting the medal is for the whole community, the former nursing sister from Devizes then listed all the people that have helped make the association what it is today: a firefighting support brigade that swings into action the minute firefighters swing themselves into their engines and race to emergencies.

Informing people over Facebook is just a fraction of the work of the forest fire alert association.

During the heat and drama of the summer months, it is on hand to stock local stations with bottles of drinking water, supplies of easy-to-eat energy snacks, cremes to calm burns, dry socks, clean knickers, you name it, the redoubtable volunteers find it and get it to the right place, or places.

Local businesses help, local restaurants help – in short, the effort has brought the community together in a way nothing before ever has.

Language barriers have been overcome by firefighters’ clear understanding that this is a group – largely made up of foreigners – that simply wants to do its best for the men and women who go the extra mile in more-often-than-not horrendous conditions whenever the need arises.

But there hasn’t been much time for ‘celebrations’ of the Queen’s award for ‘meritorious actions’. Almost the minute Debby broke the news of her marvellous medal, wildfires started taking hold and the association was back to what it does best: gathering stocks, this time to supply Odemira fire station, battling a wildfire near Ourique.

As we write, temperatures are rising: the weekend will be another scorcher, and Portugal remains acutely vulnerable, in a state of drought that sees hills and valleys tinderbox dry.

Already this year, the number of wildfires recorded is 51% up on numbers for 2018.

2019 is not going to be any kind of picnic.

Portimão prepares ‘Brigada de Rescaldo’ (damping down brigade)
Among new measures being introduced this year to improve Portugal’s firefighting response is Portimão’s ‘Brigada de Rescaldo’, a damping down brigade formed to control rural fires of large dimension pronounced extinguished but which habitually run the risk of reignitions.

Training is going ahead throughout this month, in preparation for the critical fire phase known as Charlie, running from July 1 often through till October.

Says a press release from Portimão council, the brigade is made up by a team of forestry sappers, a team of firefighters, an earthmover (JCB-type), as well as manual and mechanical tools and a specially-equipped drone that can identify potential hotspots before they develop.

The brigade will be formally presented on July 1 (at a ceremony in the sports pavilion in Mexilhoeira Grande).

Other municipalities will be getting themselves prepared for Phase Charlie this year as nationally the Agency for the Integrated Management of Rural Fires (AGIF) makes its début.

Run by Tiago Oliveira – the forestry ‘overlord’ appointed directly by prime minister António Costa after the killer fires of 2017 – AGIF has 11 ‘sub-regional nuclei’ that cover the country.

Explain reports, the brief is for AGIF to strategically coordinate the prevention and combat of forest fires, in articulation with the principal entities: the newly-organised Civil Protection association (ANEPC), the institute of nature conservation and forestries (ICNF), the institute of sea and atmosphere (IPMA) and GNR police.

Elsewhere, interventions have been ongoing to keep communities aware of all the do’s and don’ts during Portugal’s hot, dry season.

Loulé, for example, saw a special event bringing Civil Protection chief Vaz Pinto to the municipality to celebrate new protocols with hunting associations, and generally touch-base with local entities.

As the sun beats down on land that is far too vulnerable, the feeling is that everyone is preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.

A source for AGIF explains: “The country remains very vulnerable to the risks of fire because there is a long road to travel to change the behaviours of people, the way in which territory is organised and the way forests and agriculture are managed. There will need to be perseverance in these areas for the next decade” before real changes become apparent.

Find Algarve’s forest fire alert on Facebook
For anyone who has not yet discovered the Algarve’s forest fire alert association on Facebook, it can be found under “Ass. Alerta de Incendio Florestal/Forestfire Alert, Algarve/Lower Beja”.

The page runs information seven days a week between 8am and 10pm (and sometimes later, in exceptional circumstances).

On Wednesday, as we wrote this text, Debby’s British Empire Medal was just a good feeling in the background as admins were busy on fire updates for Chã da Casinha (Monchique), São Clemente (Loulé) and Vale Fuzeiros in São Bartolomeu de Messines.

As one Portuguese member remarked: “Bolas, já começou” (colloquially speaking: “Hells bells, the fires have begun…”)

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one of the few photos Debby claims to have of her and Burt together (“he’s hiding at the back”, she tells us) The firefighters are some of the many crews who have received donated uniforms and equipment as a result of the support group’s Herculean efforts
Debby Burton (third from right) launched “Associação para Alerta de Incêndio Florestal” three years ago
Portimão’s Brigada de Rescaldo is a damping down brigade formed to control rural fires pronounced extinguished but which run the risk of reignitions