“Combat is not a solution to fires – prevention is”

These are not my words but those of Brigadier General Duarte da Costa, President of ANEPC (National Emergency and Civil Protection Authority), during a recent interview.

I could not agree more with this statement. Fire prevention is something Safe Communities Portugal has been fully involved in over the last few years, working closely with ANEPC, ICNF (Institute for Nature Conservation and Forestry), IPMA (Portuguese Institute for the Sea and Atmosphere), AGIF (Agency for Integrated Rural Fire Management) and other agencies.

Understanding risk
In order to prevent fires, it is essential to understand the risk, particularly how weather can determine the level of risk, which we publish in the form of IPMA Rural Risk charts on our Facebook page each day. Knowing when the winds are high, relative humidity is low and temperatures have increased may seem obvious, but not so obvious is what the FWI means.

The FWI determines how quickly a fire will start and spread. This rural fire hazard index includes the six indices that quantify the effects of fuel moisture and wind on fire behaviour. The increase in each of these components corresponds to an increased fire hazard. Given the windy conditions recently, I highlight the following two:

FFMC (Fine Fuel Moisture Index) – represents the moisture content of dead thin, fast-drying fuels, providing a good indicator of their degree of flammability.

ISI (Initial Propagation Index) – results from the combination of the FFMC and the intensity of the wind, representing the initial rate of fire propagation, without including the influence of varying amounts of fuel. Others include the DMC (Humus Index); DC (Drought Index) and BUI (Available Fuel Index).

Last week, several municipalities, especially in the south of the country, were between 50.1 and 64 and, consequently, this was reflected in the number of fires in the Algarve, which on that day at six were the highest in the country (map shows May 23, 2021).

At the start of the Monchique fire in 2018, the FWI in the area was above 64, which is extreme level, and all fires in the Algarve since 2001 consuming over 5,000 hectares started when the FWI was above 68. This is why the FWI is so important.

Self-created risks
Another area of risk is those we create ourselves and, by this, I mean how our activities can determine the risk level. For example, if we go hiking or camping in the countryside or use a BBQ without taking the proper precautions, the risk obviously increases. Whereas we have little control over the FWI, we do have full control over our activities, so this is why risk awareness and prevention are important.
ANEPC President stated: “Resources do not allow for a firefighter to be placed behind every tree to deal with fires – the aim should be to prevent fires starting in the first place.”

At Safe Communities, we have helped in the development of government information on the prevention of fires at official campsites, while hiking and taking part in outdoor activities. As we move into the summer season, and especially with the expected growth of tourism, more people will likely take part in such activities which could potentially lead to an increase in risk. Here are some examples and how we can mitigate such risks.

Wild camping, e.g. anywhere outside camping parks, is prohibited in Portugal due mainly to the fire risk.
Official campsites are divided into a number of categories providing different types of facilities and services, but all are required to be registered with the government.

Campsites can, if not properly regulated, give rise to a higher fire risk due to: insufficient distance between combustible accessories like tents, random car parking, use of fire wood, gas to light and to cook, poor maintenance of accessories, fire suppressant equipment not properly located, and lack of training of campers and sometimes of the site staff in fire safety and prevention procedures. These are among the main issues to be addressed in campsites in order to reduce the fire risk.

Depending upon the category, registered campsites in Portugal can accommodate tents, caravans and motorhomes, either together or in separate areas. These invariably cover all the necessary fire prevention and protection measures, so it is important to follow the requirements laid down.

Hiking and cycling
Check and follow any risk information and warnings issued by ANEPC for that day. Before setting off, read the specific details on the rules for using the route safely and follow them. Check and keep in mind the weather forecast for the entire time you will be on the route.

Do not light fires anywhere other than in places where it is permitted and which have been properly prepared for that purpose. If permitted, always use appropriate equipment (e.g., barbecues in picnic parks).

Do not throw cigarette ends on the ground (keep them with you until you find a bin) and avoid discarding glass bottles and indeed any rubbish which could cause a rural fire.
Ensure you know what to do should a fire break out and the importance of calling 112 immediately. Have a cell phone with you.

Off-road activities
One of the pleasures of visiting Portugal is participating in off-road activities such as cycling, hiking, camping, buggy, 4×4 and safari tours as well as touring in motor caravans. Although these are great ways to explore, the combination of low humidity, high temperatures and high winds greatly increases the fire risk, which both tour operators and visitors should be aware of.

Some off-road operators do not mention or promote fire protection and prevention when advertising and selling their tours. In addition, many tourists coming from northern Europe may not be aware of fire risks in Portugal, and the special precautions particularly during the critical fire period.

When you participate in such activities, ensure they have guidelines, for example: prohibiting smoking in vehicles; avoid parking on land where there is tall grass or inflammable vegetation underneath and prohibited areas. Remember your exhaust pipe can get very hot, especially after a long drive.

In these ways, we can all contribute to preventing fires.

By David Thomas
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David Thomas is a former Assistant Commissioner of the Hong Kong Police, consultant to INTERPOL and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
In 2011, he founded Safe Communities Algarve to help the authorities and the community prevent crime. It is now registered as Associação SCP Safe Communities Portugal, the first national association of its type in Portugal.
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