Over the last few days, we have seen a major escalation in the risk of fires and the number of fires occurring.
At the time of writing, these have mainly been in the centre of the country and the north. Over the weekend, there were around 250 fires, most of which ignited in the afternoon and early evening. As at 1.20pm on Monday, July 11, only five remained active; none being major fires.
The fires are being facilitated by very low relative humidity and high air temperatures and, in some areas, high winds, which are expected to return.
A Situation of Contingency has been activated for the first time to deal with rural fires, which includes a provision that anyone who refuses to comply with the restrictions imposed by the government will incur a crime of disobedience. Be familiar with the measures.
From July 12, we enter a new phase of an already difficult situation, with a worsening of the meteorological conditions, which will affect most of the mainland except for the northwest.
Having monitored this sort of data since 2017, I am in no doubt we are experiencing conditions similar to those in 2017, when there were catastrophic fires, firstly in Pedrógão Grande and later in the centre of the mainland. In fact, all the major fires in 2003, 2017, the Monchique fire of 2018 and Castro Marim in 2021, were when the rural fire hazard was at maximum.
The relative humidity is extremely low in many areas and overnight (July 10-11) in Fóia, Monchique, was the lowest in the country at just 6% at one stage. Looking ahead to the data over the period up to July 15, Portugal may be at an unprecedented situation in terms of extreme fire risk, certainly the highest for several decades.
However, what has changed since 2017 is the preparedness of the emergency services which has evolved greatly, using new technology and more resources in tackling these fires.
A heavy use of aircraft at an early stage, especially in areas where access is difficult, is having good results. The early reporting of fires, quick response and bringing a fire to a conclusion in the initial attack phase, i.e., within 90 minutes, is essential. In fact, most fires are concluded within the hour. The longer a fire burns, the greater the intensity becomes as we have seen with two major fires currently burning in Pombal and Leiria.
In the next few days, the situation is almost certainly to be exacerbated, according to IPMA (Portuguese institute for sea and atmosphere) data, with greater intensity if a fire gets hold to a point that it becomes a severe fire and difficult to fight. This could lead to fires being active over a period of several days and, depending on the wind, spreading over large areas.
How can we prevent this?
Well, 98% of fires are human error, so there is much we can do. Most important is that we take every action to avoid starting a fire in the first place.
We have to be extra careful and avoid, for instance, using power tools on the garden and smoking in areas where this could burn vegetation.
Look around your garden for any debris such as glass bottles that could cause a fire. Do not park a vehicle in long grass. Monitor the fire risk daily, ensure that you are aware of actions to take should a fire approach you and, for those in high-risk areas, have an emergency kit close by in case of evacuations, calling 112 immediately if you discover a fire. These are some of the steps you can take.
If all this is followed, we will avoid fires, keeping our communities safe as well as our emergency services who do a fantastic work putting their lives at risk to help you.
Safe Communities Portugal is a Civil Protection Volunteer Organisation under Portuguese Law. Full details on how to prevent fires and actions to take should a fire approach you are on its website www.safecommunitiesportugal.com, as well as its Facebook page.
By DAVID THOMAS
President, Safe Communities Portugal