Fallen heroes

Raging forest fires kill four firefighters in just one month

Portugal is mourning the loss of four firefighters who died after combating fierce forest fires this month. The Bombeiros association says firefighting mechanisms are stretched to the limit.

By Michael Bruxo

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A wave of destructive forest fires has been creating a living hell for populations and firemen across Portugal, with growing casualties, limited fire-fighting means and charred landscapes.

These fiery disasters have led to the deployment of an average of at least 4,000 firemen and 1,000 vehicles per day throughout the last week. Four brave firefighters have lost their lives in the efforts to control the blazes, while hundreds keep joining the injured list.

The gravity of the situation is proven by the fact that more hectares have been burnt this month than throughout the whole year in 2007 or 2008, with more than 40,000 hectares of forest destroyed so far.

Between August 19 and 26, firemen battled 2,319 fires. The centre and north of the country have been the main affected areas and municipalities such as Viseu and Viana do Castelo have seen numerous fires in their forests.

The Algarve has been mostly fire-free, unlike past years in which it was among the regions that suffered the most. In July last year, the eastern Algarve region of Tavira and São Brás de Alportel were ravaged by massive fires that destroyed more than 26,500 hectares of forest.

At the time of going to press, there were nine active fires in the country being fought by 656 firemen in the municipalities of Porto, Braga, Bragança, Guarda and Vila Real.

The intense physical and psychological efforts have been taking their toll on the firemen’s strength, leading the Portuguese Volunteer Firefighters Association (APBV) to confess that their firefighting mechanisms are stretched to the limit.

In the last week, the number of daily active fires has not gone below 244. On Sunday, there were 362 fires registered in Portugal and 7,454 firemen on the job, aided by more than 2,000 vehicles.

The difficulties that the fire departments have experienced in order to tackle all fronts, and which have led the authorities to request aerial back-up from Spain and France, have resulted in some brave yet dangerous moves on behalf of some citizens.

An example of this is Joaquim da Silva Mendes, president of the Queirã parish council in Vouzela, who suffered major burns to 60% of his body while aiding the firefighting efforts in the municipality. The local politician was the first to arrive at the scene of a fire in the area, alongside a member of the Vouzela forest sappers, who suffered minor injuries. Their attempts to put out the fire, however, were not successful and almost cost them their lives.

Besides the heart-breaking images that show “red” forests and trees burning like candles, the country has been mainly mourning the loss of four of its firefighters.

One of these is Ana Rita Pereira, a 24-year old firewoman who was a victim of the flames at Serra do Caramulo, in Tondela, at the end of last week.

More than 1,000 people attended her funeral in Alcabideche, her hometown, last Saturday, including firemen from various Lisbon fire departments, the Minister of Internal Administration, Miguel Macedo, the President of Cascais municipality, Carlos Carreiras, and local residents who wanted to pay their respects to the courageous firefighter and show their support to the victim’s family.

The most recent casualty is 23-year-old Bernardo Figueiredo. The young firefighter, who had been on the force since he was 18, did not recover from the injuries he sustained on August 22, also at Serra do Caramulo, and died on Wednesday at the São João Hospital in Porto.

The President of the League of Portuguese Firemen (Liga dos Bombeiros Portugueses) considered this latest death to be another devastating blow to the firefighting forces, but guaranteed their efforts will continue undeterred.

“It is another devastating moment for the Portuguese firefighters and one that is hard to overcome. A Portuguese citizen gave his life while serving our country and that leaves strong marks,” he said.

Minister of Internal Administration, Miguel Macedo, also expressed his condolences to the family of the victim and denied any kind of lack of strategy or means.

He stressed that the government’s funding for fire departments increased 11% this year and that most of the difficulties felt are due to complicated terrains, unfavourable weather conditions or scarce or low-quality roads.

“To a certain level, these fires are inevitable due to the abandonment of large areas of the Portuguese forest,” he stated.

Macedo also expressed confidence in the firefighters in action. “I want to acknowledge and express my confidence and gratitude to all those who have been joining the exhausting efforts to put out these fires,” he said.

On August 4, a fireman, aged 45, who was left severely burnt after combating a fire in Miranda do Douro, in the north of Portugal, succumbed to his injuries in hospital.

On August 15, a 40-year-old fireman died combating a fire in Coutada, Covilhã.

42 arsonists arrested

Criminal police (PJ) have already arrested 42 suspected arsonists this year, according to a press release by the authority.

Four more men were arrested only hours after the police announced that they had already identified and arrested 38 people in 2013 suspected of arson.

One of the detainees of the 42, from Mangualde, was a 44-year-old farmer, who was “attracted to seeing fire”. He set fire to a dense forest area, with pine trees and eucalyptus, near a road that connects the villages of Almeidinha and Casal de Cima. A total of 70 hectares were destroyed.

Another suspect, a 23-year-old military officer, threw a cigarette end, still burning, into a pine forest between the localities of Carvalhas and Outeiro de Espinho, also in Mangualde. One hundred square metres of land were destroyed by fire.

President’s silence controversy

President of Portugal Cavaco Silva has been criticised over his silence concerning the recent deaths of firefighters.

The controversy gained steam when Cavaco Silva used the Portuguese Republic’s Facebook page to express his condolences to the family of economist António Borges, who died after a long battle with cancer on August 25, but did not mention the firefighters who had been killed while on duty.

The online post received many ironic replies, using a model sentence: “I express my sincere condolences to the family of the deceased firefighters.”

A source from the Presidency’s office revealed, however, that the President expressed his condolences to the families in private, in a manner which Cavaco Silva believed to be the most appropriate, “with the discretion and seriousness the matter requires”.

It was added that the President specifically asked to keep his condolences private and that he is following the situation very closely.