Following another impossible day yesterday where 400 new fires flared up as exhausted firefighters battled on every front, the Portuguese government actioned the “mechanism” for EU support and reinforcements are on their way.
Italy and Morocco have already sent vital Canadair firefighting planes; the government of Timor has pledged €2 million to help with fire-fighting efforts and even football ‘hero’ Cristiano Ronaldo has stepped in, saying he will be giving financial help to rebuild his hometown of Funchal.
SIC television news, which like every media outlet in the country is following the ongoing drama, says the 31-year-old captain of Portugal’s national team has already talked over the telephone with the head of Madeira’s regional government Miguel Albuquerque.
But today (Thursday) focus is on those responsible for the devastation which has claimed at least six lives so far, caused 300 to be treated in hospital and destroyed the lives and dreams of hundreds.
Final tallies are long from being calculated as the north and centre of mainland Portugal is still facing “at least 12 uncontrollable blazes” and the situation in Madeira continues to be problematic. But Diário de Notícias’ front page this morning suggests more land has been burnt in the first terrible nine days of August than was lost in “the whole of 2014, 2008 and 2007”.
Rough estimates point to just under 28,000 hectares – and we are still weeks away from the end of the country’s critical fire period, dubbed “Charlie”.
With mounting criticism now on Portugal’s ineffectual policies for prevention, leader writers are challenging news stations to start asking pivotal questions, instead of just showing the kilometres of devastation and people overcome by stress and emotion.
Says Público’s João Miguel Tavares: “What I would like to see is a good television debate with all the ministers of environment and internal administration who were in place between 2000 and 2013 so that they can explain to us slowly why we have spoken for so many years about fires, and why everything suggests this will go on.”
The drama assailing the country is not about geography or high temperatures, Tavares maintains – citing a European study that shows how Portugal continually has more fires than France, Spain, Italy and Greece put together – but about “profound political incompetence” which he suggests is “much more difficult to combat than the worst of the fires”.
24-year-old arsonist behind Madeira’s misery used lighter, after binge of alcohol and hashish
Paulo Gonçalves is the 24-year-old man in police custody today, accused of having caused Madeira’s inferno in which hundreds of homes have been lost with nothing more than a cigarette lighter.
Gonçalves was known to police – and suspected of being behind another major fire in 2011.
National tabloid Correio da Manhã claims he has ‘confessed’ to starting the blaze on Monday that claimed the lives of at least three elderly people (another person is still missing) after a morning’s ‘work on the farm’, where he drank beer and smoked hashish.
Apparently at risk of being lynched by other prisoners – particularly those whose families have lost property in the fire – Gonçalves faces a lifetime in prison, claims CM, as he may well end up being charged with murder.
26 ‘arsonists’ in police custody on Wednesday
Meantime, two more men have been arrested, suspected of causing fires up and down the country.
By Wednesday, this brought the national tally to 26 men.
The two latest suspects were a 36-year-old from Famalicão believed to have started a fire in Fradelos under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and a 65-year-old whose story appears to be that he was trying to ‘clear a private plot of land’.
Petition underway calling for maximum prison term for arsonists
Already over 34,000 people have put their names to a petition calling for the maximum prison term (25 years) for arsonists.
Found on the peticaopublico site, it is rapidly gathering further signatures and can be found on: http://peticaopublica.com/pview.aspx?pi=PT82461
President Marcelo flies on solidarity mission to Madeira
President Marcelo flew to Madeira on Wednesday afternoon, to show Portugal’s solidarity with the island. He went on to visit homes destroyed by the fires, and hug people, and has promised to return in two weeks time to add impetus to rebuilding efforts.
As CM remarks, the President’s visit is being followed today by one “with a more executive function” by prime minister António Costa. This suggests there may be less hugging involved, and more practical talk about aid and assistance.
Calls for resignation of Madeiran president Miguel Albuquerque
A public petition has already been raised in Madeira by angry residents who feel remarks by president Miguel Albuquerque on Tuesday evening led to their homes being lost, as firemen did not respond to panic calls for assistance in time.
Albuquerque’s statement that “everything was under control”, led householders to sit comfortably on their sofas, one has explained – only to discover flames were racing down the mountainside towards them.
This particular householder told CMTV on Wednesday that he had “lost everything” and did not know where to start in rebuilding his shattered life.
Today, heroic firefighters face more horrors, and Civil Protection alerts point to the situation being critical well into the weekend.
Local populations, however, have been praised in their massive support of firefighters and true grit in taking initiative and getting involved.
Elsewhere, campaigns to collect snacks, water, dry socks and other items for firemen are underway and swelling fire stations – while social media carries extraordinary photographs of the brave men and women who every day face ‘Portugal on fire’ with no idea when the drama will end.
Photo by: NUNO ANDRÉ FERREIRA/LUSA