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Damages of €120 million just in Serra de Arouca, as major fires at last brought under control

Today (Monday) is a “better day” all round in Portugal’s Herculean struggle of the last 10 days against wildfires that have destroyed thousands of acres of forestland and devastated many rural communities.

The massive Russian super-planes which flew in as part of an international relief effort are both back in action and fighting blazes in the north and centre of the country – and the desperate fire in S. Pedro do Sul (Viseu) has at last been brought under control.

Over 600 firemen and women are now on the ground in the area in a dampening down operation, which will go continue into Tuesday as weather conditions are still of the kind that could see re-ignitions in various places.

But as the country starts to ‘breathe ’ for the first time in well over a week, prime minister António Costa has announced that an inquiry is being set up into complaints by the mayor of S. Pedro do Sul that air and land support came “far too late” and only following days of calls for reinforcements (click here).

Costa has been meeting with various mayors of devastated communities this afternoon, and as one went into the discussions, he told journalists that the damages just in his borough looked like exceeding €120 million.

José Artur Neves, mayor of Arouca – the borough that has been under fire since last Monday – explained that the worst damage (estimated at more than €117 million) related to forestry losses: 12,000 hectares of eucalyptus and 5,000 of pine.

“Fifty eight per cent of our forestland has been destroyed”, he said, stressing Arouca’s forest was “one of the pillars of the borough’s economy”.

The burnt wasteland that replaces Arouca’s hectares of green now means that 1185 head of cattle have nothing to eat for the “next seven months”, Neves added.

“Fifty eight families dependent on grazing their animals now have nothing to feed them”, and if these families receive no help, the mayor said “they will have no alternative but to sell their herds and move from the region” – thus compounding the whole problem of desertification that has seen the country’s interior reduced to vast tracts of ‘abandoned, inflammable forestland’ over the last few decades.

Added to Arouca’s woes is the loss of their iconic Passadiços do Paiva walkway, which suffered major damage to a 600-metre stretch in the fires.

Neves calculates that Arouca’s damages in terms of tourism come to around €4.5 million, and that’s just taking it to December this year.

What has happened in the borough has “very negative impacts on its image as a Unesco world Geopark”, he explained, saying that 89% of what has burned will need to be replaced – particularly when it comes to indigenous species.

And then there are ‘sundry damages’, like the beehives that burned, the family homes, the vehicles and livestock, all lost.

Present at the meeting in Arouca fire station today were the mayors of Águeda, Castelo de Paiva (Aveiro) and Castro Daire (Viseu).

In the words of the PM, it “has been extraordinary what the country has had to live through this week”, and now is the time to work out, slowly but surely, the cost of the damages involved.

Madeira has already said relief needed will exceed €55 million, now Arouca estimates €120 million and there are various other boroughs to add their tallies.

And as António Costa told reporters today, what has been so particularly extraordinary this year is that so many fires appeared to start at the same time, at various parts of the north and centre of the country.

It is a reality that led to the denouncement by fire league boss Jaime Marta Soares last week that Portugal was under attack by an “organised network of terrorists”.

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PHOTO: A damaged section of Arouca’s Passadiços after the fires which have forced the closure of the whole 8 km structure. The Passadiços website now advises people booked in to enjoy the walk through ‘unspoilt natural beauty’ to reschedule their visits for October.