Independent experts tip-toe through Portugal’s worst fire drama in living memory

Obscured by the brouhaha kicked up by Operation Marquês, the ‘independent’ report on the fire drama of Pedrógão Grande in which 64 people died has presented its findings today – and they do not make easy reading.

Confirming all the ‘bad publicity’ and press of the time, the 300-page report considers “there were failings” right from the moment the fires began.

Without those failings, “probably, the dramas that happened would not have happened”.

But warnings sounded last month that Pedrógão Grande’s fire deaths would see ‘arguidos’ (official suspects) for negligent homicide in October have yet to see any line of consequence.

Possibly heads could roll on the basis of the report presented by former dean of Algarve university João Guerreiro. At least two names have been highlighted in texts by Público.

Explaining the failures of responsibility at command level in Civil Protection, Público cited former district commander of Leiria Mário Cerol, as well as current national commander Albino Tavares.

According to the experts, had Civil Protection opted for the evacuation of villages – or at very least the updating of populations on the fire’s progress – the outcome could have been very different.

Cerol was “in charge at the time”, wrote Público’s Liliana Valente, while a slightly later report co-written by Valente and David Dinis said investigators consider Tavares – at the time the national second in command – did not comply with regulations on timeline registration which has made “getting to the truth” difficult.

While Guerreiro stressed that “there could have been pre-emptive measures taken immediately after the fire took hold”, he explained nonetheless that the window for these measures was never very large.

The fire involved “exceptional meteorological conditions” which meant that within a few hours it became “impossible to attack”.

The Pedrógão Grande fires raged for the best part of a week, destroying countless properties, lives and businesses.

Reconstruction is still underway – excruciatingly slowly, by all accounts – but what is interesting from today’s report is that blame on the GNR for ushering 47 people onto the ‘road of death’ (where many simply burst into flames) appears not to be on the cards.

Says Público, the report’s coordinator explained that the fire “had unique characteristics in meteorological terms, provoking a lack of control in its combat and leading to the death of 64 people.

“He guaranteed that there were no deaths that resulted from the GNR’s routing (of traffic) to the EN 236”.

And the rest of the inquiry focused on ‘recommendations’ for the future regarding forestry control and how communications failings could be addressed.

Within hours of the report being presented, Prime Minister António Costa was facing journalists flanked by the Ministers for Internal Administration and Agriculture, saying that he hoped it would be the basis of a parliamentary debate to go ahead later this month, and ensure that tragedies like Pedrógão Grande did not happen again.

Debate is certain to come – while equally awaited, says Público, are reports by the Civil Protection authority itself, and a scientific evaluation of the way the fire developed.

But the bottom line is that the powers that be appear to be attempting to ‘move on’ as quickly and as unobtrusively as possible. And with the media furore over Sócrates and the many millions allegedly moved from one VIP bank account to another, attention is suitably at the ‘deficit’ end of the scale.

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