Photo: NUNO ANDRÉ FERREIRA/LUSA

Critical fire season ends after 110,000ha of forest burned

The government declared, for the first time ever, a state of calamity in July due to the high risk of fire

In Portugal, the season considered to be the most critical in terms of rural fires and the one in which the largest number of firefighters are mobilised officially ends today (Friday), with the record of almost 110,000 hectares of forest destroyed, the highest figure since 2017. Four people died during this period as a result of the fires.

Over the past three months, rural firefighting forces have been at maximum capacity, with 12,917 firefighters in 3,062 teams, 2,833 vehicles and 60 aircraft.

In a summer that saw the worst drought since 2005 and unusually high temperatures, the risk of fire was high, prompting the government in July to declare, for the first time ever, a state of calamity in the whole of mainland Portugal and also a state of alert – the lowest level – which was in force on some days in July and August.

During this most critical season for fires, thousands of hectares burned, namely in the Serra da Estrela mountain range, with one fire that lasted 11 days in August consuming more than 28,000 hectares, of which around 22,000 were in the area’s natural park.

The Serra da Estrela fire is already deemed to be the worst that the country has seen in the last five years, but this summer there were other major fires that lasted for several days, consuming thousands of hectares and causing huge losses, such as those that started in Murça (in Vila Real district) and in Pombal (in Leiria).

In total, since January 1, a total of 10,155 fires started, consuming 109,846 hectares of forest – the largest area burnt since 2017 and the fourth-highest figure of the last decade, though only the sixth-highest in terms of the number of fires.

This summer also saw four deaths: a pilot of a firefighting plane, an elderly couple who had a car accident while they were fleeing the flames and burned to death in Murça, and a firefighter from Óbidos who died of sudden illness while in action.

This year, 151 people were arrested for the crime of arson, more than double as many as in 2021, with 70 of them detained by the GNR and 81 by the Judicial Police (PJ).

The 10% of fires that broke out this year and could not be extinguished within 90 minutes are being subject to a detailed analysis under the National Commission of Integrated Management of Rural Fires, an arm of the Integrated Agency of Rural Fires (AGIF), headed by Tiago Oliveira.

This analysis is also receiving contributions from national experts from universities and research centres, namely some members of the independent technical commission that assessed the deadly 2017 fires.

The final report, which is to include the experts’ recommendations and the assessment made by the subcommittee, is due to be delivered by the end of November to the ministers of internal administration and of environment and climate action.

After the end of what is considered the most critical season for fires, combat resources will be reduced from Saturday, as the level of operational commitment termed “reinforced level III” by the National Operational Directive (DON) comes into force.

During the first fortnight of October, up to 11,007 members of 2,613 firefighting teams and up to 2,353 vehicles from the various organisations present on the ground and up to 60 aircraft will be on call.

The National Network of Watch Posts to prevent and detect fires will continue with 230 watch posts until October 15.

In the second half of October, the DON foresees a further reduction of firefighting resources.

Source: Lusa