Post-fire news today is massive: the EU is coming to Portugal’s aid. All mechanisms possible are to be actioned, and money spent will not be weighted against the country’s slowly recovering deficit.
With President Marcelo touring devastated communities, EC president Jean-Claude Juncker has intimated that it may now be the moment to create a form of pan-European Civil Protection force – given that Portugal’s own, during the last “interminable summer” (President Marcelo’s description), was hopelessly lacking.
In the meantime, Civil Protection authority president Joaquim Leitão has handed in his resignation, which has been instantly accepted.
Also coming through this morning are stories that EDP could well be held responsible for the terrible round of fires which began in Pedrógão Grande in June, killing 65 people in a matter of hours.
The electricity company has refuted claims that failure to keep vegetation down around medium tension cables could have been the cause of the killer blazes, but two of the reports commissioned after the tragedy point to this being the case – blowing the theory given by authorities at the time that it was a “bolt of lightening, created by a dry thunderstorm”.
According to TSF radio, technical conclusions are backed by images which show the “lack of clearing” of potentially-hazardous material beneath electrical lines.
“Various legal experts admit the company could be held responsible by the courts”, affirms the station, quoting from the report led by forest fire expert Xavier Viegas in which it was stated that “the trees in the vicinity of the supposed area of origin almost touch the electricity cables, making it possible in periods of high wind as was present at the time of ignition, for branches to make contact with the cables”. There were “various indications that trees will have hit these cables” because branches showed “signs of burning” in a number of relevant places.
Meantime, the depth of human tragedy in the 44 councils and 10 districts that lie devastated throughout the rural centre and north is unimaginable – worse than any single piece of writing or video clip could convey.
President Marcelo takes poignant ‘walkabout’
Knowing exactly how to bring warmth back into people’s hearts, Portugal’s president Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa has been on a poignant tour of the communities worst hit by last Sunday’s fires, listening to survivors’ stories, hugging people as they weep, gently wiping away tears, and promising that he is here to stay.
This was not a ‘photo-opportunity’. The man who started transforming the role of Head of State the minute he arrived was on a mission to ensure that no one gets ‘left behind’, no rebuilding ‘delayed’.
Speaking after an exhausting day facing painfully raw emotions he insisted he would be back, and that recovering businesses and jobs that have now been put in jeopardy are two of the pressing priorities that he will be following closely.
But it is not just about bricks, mortar and physical rebuilding. The need for psychological support in these broken communities is palpable and Marcelo showed he means to see people get it.
As one mourner at one of the scores of funerals now going ahead remarked: “This is much worse than anything that appears on television”.
It is the despair, the “how can I move forwards” that many stories and compact video clips don’t cover.
Like the case of a 79-year-old in the run-down village of São Gião, Oliveira do Hospital who had very little to start with, and now has absolutely nothing.
Germano Marques lost his wife Rosa of over half a century in the blaze, and wishes he had gone too.
He told reporters: “What am I going to do now, on my own?”
The house that stood during all his memories has been totally destroyed, though he is managing to live in a tiny part of it “between the kitchen and the bedroom” which still retains some sort of roof.
“He relies on the help of the few neighbours that he has”, explains tabloid Correio da Manhã, but the village is “practically deserted”.
The paper adds that Germano doesn’t even have a photograph of Rosa to hold/ look at/ keep safe, as “everything they had has burnt”.
Dead farm animals pose public health risk, 500,000 sheep need food
Stacked against the human tragedy, the death of farm animals has had very little mention. But for so many of the families affected, their animals were part of their lives.
Even if they ended up on the table, pigs, sheep, rabbits and chickens meant ‘survival’ in many homes.
Hundreds of thousands of these charred and twisted animals’ carcasses now lie waiting for disposal.
According to today’s reports, agriculture minister Capoulas Santos is “immediately making available €15 million” to ensure the recovery and burial of dead animals before there is any further risk to public health.
In Serra da Estrela, for example, as many as 5000 sheep are known to have died.
One farmer has described how he realised his diary herd of 180 animals was in the path of flames bearing down on his property as he desperately evacuated his family to safety.
There was nothing he could have done, but now he has no idea what he will do without them.
“It’s just not something you can build back up in one or two years”, cheese-maker Paulo Soares told CM. “It’s a life that has been lost”.
In general terms, Capoulas Santos says State payments to cover damages will start coming through with 100% finance available to those who have lost in value up to €5000, and 50% for victims claiming more than this value.
The first priorities are burying carcasses, reaching far-flung locations where animals are injured or need to be put to sleep, and feeding herds that now have no pasture.
In numbers, this translates to as many as 100,000 cattle and 500,000 sheep.
The weird and the wonderful
Among the terrible stories of loss and tragedy, there are some that are just plain weird and a little wonderful.
CM has met one fireman who took a phone call as he battled flames to hear that his own house had just been lost.
“Okay, thank you” said Paulo Teixeira, saying: “Then I hung up. So much was happening, so much was burning, my heart was racing… the house really wasn’t what was most important…”
Fátima Carvalho, 68 and her partner Cesário Egidi, 76, were facing flames in Candosa, Tabua, when they realised they were on their own – and there was “not even a drop of water” coming through the taps.
The flames hit a gas bottle which exploded, sending windows crashing inwards.
Facing disaster, Fátima remembered the wine the couple had fermenting in their adega.
It took 40 litres jettisoned at the flames, but the couple stopped the fire from entering their house.
In Vouzela, where seven people died, the fires exposed a set of bones behind a family business. Authorities believe them to be the remains of an elderly woman who went missing in February 2016. Said a relative: “I have been talking with the GNR and they say the body had a prosthesis. My sister had a prosthesis”. For now, this body is not joining the fire-toll death count.
Final tallies: “500,000 hectares burnt”, “more than one billion in damages”
Final tallies point to close on 520,000 hectares of forestland burnt in Portugal this year – half of which went up in flames between last Saturday and Monday.
The figures come from European monitoring system EFFIS.
In simple terms, this is two times the district of Lisbon, 5.5% of Portugal, and easily “a record”.
According to CM yesterday, the death count now stands at 112 though this could change as people remain critically ill in hospital, while damages are quantified at “more than one billion”.
CM give this figure on the basis of the independent report into the fires of Pedrógão Grande, which estimated damages then at €613 million – with 209,000 hectares affected. Last weekend’s fires “duplicated the area of land burnt” which should consequently double the damages – and this is just an estimated. CM stresses damages could be “even more”.
But what we are all waiting to hear now is what measures the government is going to implement as a result of the extraordinary Council of Ministers, due to take place tomorrow morning.
Today, it is time for more funerals, as in Alcobaça the municipality has had to emit a warning to householders not to drink the tap water, due to the amount of ash that has found its way into the public supply system.