Exposé turns spotlight on ‘unnecessary millions’ ploughed into Portugal’s rented firefighting air support

In the aftermath of last summer’s horrific fires in which over 100 people died – and many more suffered catastrophic losses to homes and businesses – exposés are slowly emerging to show the extent of “State incompetence, or something else” that contributed to the tragedy.

TVI24 broadcast a truly shocking documentary on Monday evening (see below) that has inflamed public opinion, but which appears to have been largely sidelined by mainstream competitors.

“O Cartel do Fogo” spent 45 electrifying minutes detailing ‘unspeakable truths’.

Its sources told of incendiary devices dropped by low-flying planes; of ruinous contracts with “private companies”, of an alleged “connivance of the State” that one former Air Force Lt. Col equated to “the crime of treason” and of “groups and little groups whose interests are put above those of the country”.

Left hanging in the air was the question, can this really all be put down to incompetence, or is it an altogether much more sinister can of worms?

Today, Diário de Notícias carries a report explaining how the extension of this year’s critical fire period committed the government paying out (an extra) €2.5 million in planes and helicopters to the end of October.

It’s a text that refers time and again to the fact that these contract extensions with various private companies were all very specific on paying only for hours flown.

The inference is that these latest contracts could not be dubbed ‘ruinous’ – though they still ensure ‘compensation’ for companies whose craft do not fly the contracted number of hours.

But that is also ‘missing the point’ (as explained to TVI by firefighters’ league champion Jaime Marta Soares). Had Portugal decided years ago to buy its own firefighting fleet (instead of contracting out) it would very possibly have saved itself money, time and ultimately lives.

Former Air Force Colonel Ilídio Rodrigues explained: “All the heavy duty planes that fought Pedrógão Grande (the country’s first killer blaze in which 65 people died) arrived late because they were not national. They had to come from other countries. In fires like that you have to attack as fast as possible”.

Xavier Viegas who delivered one of the three highly critical post-Pedrógão Grande technical reports agreed that if Portugal had had a Canadair (heavy duty waterbomber) at the beginning of the fire, the terrible results could have been avoided.

The whole issue of Canadair availability opens the door on yet more murkiness.

Portugal currently rents two Canadair from a company tainted by an investigation into cartel corruption in Spain. The cost: €5 million.

Each Canadair flight costs the country €3,700, explains Leal, and each plane is assured 1,350 flights under the terms of the contract.

But the question remains, why does Portugal not have its own Canadair?

Col. Rodrigues explained that it would take eight to 10 to properly service the country, and this is what he was pushing towards when he was in charge of coordinating Air Force resources for the former Civil Protection structure (pre-2006).

He told the documentary, he proposed the purchase of 6-8 Canadair when there was the possibility of 75% EU funding.

“The Air Force killed the proposal”, he said.

“This is where I would say, critically, that’s what the government wanted to hear”.

“Government after government, and no one was interested (in purchasing Canadair) which was strange”, he said.

Strange too is the case of eight Puma helicopters ‘mothballed’ in an Army barracks when they “could have been adapted to fight fires”.

TVI24 heard that the helicopters were in “excellent condition”.

Former Puma pilot Coronel Alexandrino Reis talked of his surprise at the decision to leave them under covers in a hanger – particularly as in August a fleet of Swiss super-Pumas came to the country’s aid to help fight fires that “devastated the centre of the country”.

“They said the ones that came (the superPumas) were better and a little faster”, he told Leal. “Maybe they were. But for fires, it’s not important whether they go 20 knots/ hour faster”.

Then came the mention of Portugal’s notorious Kamov firefighting helicopters – the Russian craft that have cost the country all told over €348 million and which have never been fully operational.

Right now, of six originally purchased, only three fly missions – and these are frequently cut short by systems malfunctions.

The purchase of the Kamovs – made when prime minister António Costa was in the driving seat at the ministry of internal administration, backed by secretary of State Rocha Andrade (since ‘disgraced’ over the football freebie scandal) – has been the one of the most catastrophic government purchases in history.

As the documentary explains, Air Force chiefs were against it from the start.

Said Col. Rodrigues, Russian technology is simply so different from that of the west that no one here would know how to repair or maintain them.

In other words, there were no good reasons for purchasing the Kamovs.

The Accounts Court eventually ruled that Rocha Andrade had not safeguarded the country’s interests when he brokered the deal, thus Leal’s question is “how can it be that the State has never been held responsible”?

The issue of a firefighting ‘cartel’ became clear during the government of José Sócrates in 2005 when two public companies vying for contracts were passed over in favour of companies that “ joined together, charging double the amount of previous tenders, so damaging the State”, her report went on.

Even after those companies had been fined for operating as a cartel, “inexplicably” the government continued to do business with two of them.

And so the documentary fanned the kind of flames that have been smouldering for years.

Commentary over Facebook has been scathing: “We have the largest tragedy in history with over 100 deaths, months of investigation and a journalist discovers the fires were started by planes that flew over forests and dropped incendiary parachute devices, and no firefighters, GNR, PJ police or government knew?

“What is happening?

“And the day after (the documentary) not a whisper? No one is talking about this?”

We are now three days down the line since TVI’s report aired, and still hardly a word. News today is that environmental organisations have revealed that the government of António Costa has actually given permission for more eucalyptus plantations than the executive of Passos Coelho.

To watch the TVI documentary (click here)

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