Forest fires – the risks and causes

I hope that the recent rainfall and slight drop in temperatures in some parts of the country are the signs that the heat wave we have experienced is nearly at an end – but I am not that optimistic.

The critical fire period is in place until September 30 and history shows us that some of the worst fires have occurred outside this period – for instance the Tavira fire of 2012, which was in October.

At the time of writing, for the first time in four months no municipality is at “Extreme” fire risk and only six at “very high”. Of course, this does not mean that we can go out and light fires – as the laws preventing this remain in force under the Critical Fire Period (CFP).

Over the last months, we have seen some of the worst fires for many years in Portugal, causing death, injuries to the public and firefighters, severe damage to the environment and property, and psychological damage to the communities affected. From January 1 to August 22, there were 11,537 forest fire incidents, which burned 166,000 hectares of forest, 48,000 hectares more than in the same period last year.

To help keep people informed, Safe Communities Portugal has produced daily bulletins through our Facebook, reaching up to 80,000 people on some days, and clearly from the comments there is much finger-pointing as who is to blame for the fires. These range from the government, for the lack of a land management policy to reduce the risk and spread of fires, to who is responsible for lighting the fires in the first place.

These, in my mind, are two separate issues.

The lack of environmental planning increases the risk, but does not actually cause fires; nor does low humidity, high winds and high temperatures. These factors, which only the first we have control over, however, certainly facilitate the starting and spreading of fires, but all fires have a cause, and in Portugal it is 99% human origin.

Who is lighting the fires?

All rural fires are investigated by specialist units of the GNR. Up until August 2, 2017, they had investigated the causes of 8,122 fires, concluding that 40% of the occurrences, that is 3,320 fires, had negligent causes.

Then there were 1,374 fires that were caused with intent – namely arson: 17% of the total.

There were 699 fires, 9% of the total, which originated from re-ignitions and only 82 (1%) which arose from natural causes. It should be noted that some 2,647, or 33% of fires, had an unknown cause.

According to the National Commander of Civil Protection, Rui Esteves, 38% of the incidents (August 8-14) occurred “at night”, meaning they had a “criminal hand”.

This year, the GNR has identified 700 individuals as potential arsonists in the country’s villages and rural areas. They are referenced in the system. “Of the 62 detained by the Judiciary Police this year for the crime of forest fire, about 40 were suspects that the GNR had already identified.”

So far this year, the security forces have arrested 102 people suspected of forest fires, nearly twice the number (53) registered in 2016.

On social media, there is much speculation that those responsible for lighting the fires are “organised criminal groups” or “terrorists”. Basically, the rational given for the former is that, on occasions, a number of fires in a relatively close area have occurred around the same time. Although this theory cannot be discounted, the reason that many fires start virtually simultaneously is often because of high winds carrying lighted debris over significant distances. No groups have so far been arrested.

The definition of terrorism is “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aim”. From everything I read about these fires, there is nothing I can find to substantiate these comments. What is the political aim and who is making it? These important ingredients are missing.

Last August I wrote an article for the Algarve Resident, entitled “What’s in the mind of a forest fire arsonist?” In that article, based on police reports over a period, it appeared that those arrested were mainly unemployed, with low educational level, without caring relationships and with alcohol or drug problems. On occasions, a falling out of a relationship or an argument with a loved one can be a trigger point.

From what I can see from the situation this year, it has not changed. There are many examples, some being as old as 78 years. In one recent case, a person was seen by a helicopter pilot actually stoking fires using dry hay, before he was arrested.

Clearly much more needs to be done to protect the public from these types of people. I understand measures are being considered to detain under house arrest, during the critical fire period, those who are known to have caused rural fires. There are also petitions to increase the maximum penalties for arson, which is currently eight years.

The environment
Portugal is one of the most heavily forested countries in Europe, but only 1.6% of that land is owned by the state – the lowest percentage in Europe. Most of that land is highly fragmented. In the past 50 years, rural populations have dwindled (one out of nine people now live in coastal cities), leaving these privately owned plots of land abandoned and neglected.

This has allowed plantations to grow to the edge of roads and resulted in the lack of adequate fire breaks between plantations.

At the same time, large parts of central and northern Portugal became covered with eucalyptus, a sap-rich, fast-growing tree, native to Australia. It sucks up scarce groundwater but is considered highly profitable because it provides raw material for the paper industry. Eucalyptus trees have destroyed native species like oaks, chestnuts, and cork – which are more resistant to fire – and now cover a quarter of total forest land.

It has been reported that some 72 municipalities, including Pedrógão Grande (where 65 died) do not have an approved rural fire plan. As a result of the Pedrógão Grande fire, several government enquiries have been set up, including a police investigation into the incident. Unfortunately, it may take a tragedy such as this to bring about change.

Irrespective of climatic conditions, disorganisation and depopulation of the territory, a comprehensive civil protection policy has to be prepared that identifies and prevents the existing risks in the territory. This should include: removing the risk source, changing the likelihood of it occurring and changing the consequences if it does occur.

Prime Minister António Costa recently told journalists that whereas he could not anticipate the results of the technical commission set up to analyse the fires that erupted in June, he did however stress: “Good policies give good results, bad policies give bad results. Forests are a good example; bad forestry policies have given these poor results”.

It is a sobering fact that, according to the EU’s European Environment Agency, more fires broke out in Portugal between 1993 and 2013 than in Spain, France, Italy or Greece, despite the country’s relatively small geographical size.
Let’s hope that something is done to bring about a change for the better!

By David Thomas
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David Thomas is a former Assistant Commissioner of the Hong Kong Police, consultant to INTERPOL and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In October 2011 he founded Safe Communities Algarve an on-line platform here in the Algarve to help the authorities and the community prevent crime. It is now registered as Associação SCP Safe Communities Portugal, the first national association of its type in Portugal, with a new website launched in May 2015. He can be contacted at [email protected], or on 913045093 or at