Environmental disaster: Serra da Estrela blaze razes areas of ‘unique biosphere’

Mayor criticises firefighting strategy: “It didn’t need to be like this”

Tuesday morning sees the fire that began near Covilhã in the early hours of Saturday morning well into its fourth day of devastating activity. 

Vast swathes of unique biosphere – with centenarian trees and precious habitats – have been dramatically laid waste as the fire has charged into the neighbouring municipality of Manteigas.

Media reports describe “an environmental disaster” – rendered even worse by the criticism that it “didn’t need to be like this”.

Manteigas mayor Flávio Massano believes the fire could have been stopped in its tracks on Saturday if only firefighters had been directed to roads between the two municipalities, from which they would have been able to combat advancing flames.

“This didn’t happen”, writes tabloid Correio da Manhã, adding that “from the moment the fire passed into this area (Manteigas) and entered into a plain full of scrub, it rapidly arrived at an iconic valley (Vale Glacier do Zêzere) which stretches for 13 kms and literally romped through it.

Species lost include many that are protected (bellflowers, campion, juniper) as well as forested areas that “will be difficult to recover” due to their age and the variety of endemic trees within them, the habitats of owls, deer, foxes, rabbit, buzzards and red kites.

Today almost 600 firefighters are still battling to bring the fires under control against Nature’s odds, which include strong winds. It is common knowledge in the area that any fire that spreads through Serra da Estrela will last a week if not brought under control within the first few hours.

3,600 hectares have already been roasted/ charred/ burnt to a crisp. Flávio Massano believes the damage will be even greater by the time this latest tragedy is extinguished.

Meantime, Covilhã’s firefighting commander has ‘rejected criticism’ of the strategy of combat, albeit he admits to “errors in the initial approach” which left the fire in the hands of only 100 firefighters backed by two air support.

Jose Maria Saraiva told SIC television news yesterday that responsibility for these initial errors ‘will need to be established’. The fire “should have been confined to the valley” in which it began, he said – which pretty much confirms the criticism he sought to reject.

The only ‘good news’ this morning is that rain is apparently forecast in the north and centre of the country tomorrow, with an overall drop in temperatures expected. Add to this the fact that there are now 10 air support fighting this fire from above as hundreds of firefighters remain battling below, backed by almost 200 appliances.

Mayor Massano’s last message however was bleak: “The next few hours will involve an enormous amount of work and concern. The situation is very difficult. I would like to be able to give another kind of information, but at this point the mobilisation of all means available is urgent, namely air support. All coordination and pressure is being made in this direction. We need help, and luck!”

natasha.donn@portugalresident.com