Exhausted bombeiros fight Portugal’s worst ever fires

news: Exhausted bombeiros fight Portugal’s worst ever fires

Last Sunday, more than 3,000 bombeiros, many in a state of exhaustion, were fighting a total of 56 fires, supported by 956 vehicles and 37 water dropping planes. Fires raged in 16 districts throughout the country, fanned by temperatures of 34ºC and 80kph winds. Worst hit was the district of Viseu with 16 fires, followed by Viana do Castelo (11) and Vila Real (six).

By Monday evening, the figures had dropped slightly and authorities reported 34 fires in 11 districts. Fires were burning in Abrantes, Aveiro, Braga, Bragança, Castelo Branco, Leiria, Porto and Santarém, but the most worrying blaze centred around Coimbra, 196km north of Lisbon, where fires swept through the Vale de Canos woodland surrounding the city. In Viana do Castelo, the city’s Alto Minho hospital refused further admissions as fires and intense smoke enveloped the area. Patients were evacuated to hospitals in Porto and Barcelos.

Sócrates concedes

lack of resources

On Monday evening, Prime Minister José Sócrates held an emergency meeting in Coimbra at the Civil Governor’s headquarters, attended by cabinet members including António Costa, Minister for Internal Administration.

Sócrates promised emergency relief assistance for those worst hit by the fires, paid tribute to the work of the bombeiros and expressed solidarity with the local authorities of Miranda do Corvo and Coimbra, two of the areas most affected by the fires. He also said that money from the European Solidarity Fund, designed to support the restoration of public infrastructures, could be made available. “We are enduring the worst fires of the last five years,” he said.

In earlier comments, Sócrates had conceded that emergency services could not handle the crisis and that Portugal had no option but to appeal for help. “We have asked the EU for reinforcements. The resources we had at our disposal were insufficient to fight all the fires,” he admitted.

European Commission President and former Prime Minister Durão Barroso also visited the worst affected areas and pledged support for his home country. He said France and Spain had already sent water dropping planes, while help from Germany and Italy was expected later. President Sampaio appealed for national unity and urged employers to release volunteer firemen from their work obligations. “At this time, the country needs as many firefighters as possible,” he said.

One of the most serious fires over the previous weekend was in the Pampilhosa da Serra region, in Coimbra, where bombeiros claimed they heard little explosions, leading them to suspect arsonists were responsible for the fires. Bombeiros were able to contain the fire by nightfall, but serious blazes also broke out in the concelho of Abrantes where homes were evacuated and residents fled for their lives.

A real war zone

A soldier due to serve in Kosovo next month with the Third Paratroop Division – just one of hundreds helping fire crews in Abrantes – described the scene on the ground as a real war.

Each fire brought with it tragic stories of suffering. A fire near Souto da Casa (Castelo Branco) destroyed a home and left an elderly couple homeless. Joaquim Raposo and Ana Ramos, aged 77 and 76, were left only with the clothes they were wearing after their home was gutted by fire. “We were already extremely poor, but now we are left without our house, the only thing that we had left,” they said.

In the fight against the flames, a fire engine was destroyed and five bombeiros nearly lost their lives. “We had to literally run between the flames,” said firefighter Paulo Simões.

A total of 134,000 hectares (331,000 acres) have now burned in wildfires so far this year, more than during the whole of last year.