With just a few days to go before the March 15 deadline for land cleaning, there are many property owners in rural areas who will have not undertaken fuel management (land cleaning) at a range of 50 metres of their house as required by law.
So, what happens next? In accordance with the law, owners can be fined and municipal councils enter the land and clean themselves, charging owners accordingly.
There are many reasons, however, why land has not been cleaned despite, in many cases, the best efforts and intentions of property owners who now fear that they will be fined in some cases for a minor infringement.
Safe Communities Portugal (SCP) has met earlier with the GNR, ICNF (nature conservation and forestry institute) and ANPC (national civil protection authority) at their national headquarters and at an Algarve regional level, and was informed by the GNR that enforcement would be on the basis of advice, warnings and, in the event of non-compliance, fines.
The prime minister himself has said that the objective is not to fine people, but to ensure compliance to reduce the fire risk to people and property. It also seems obvious that with large-scale problem, and taking into account available resources, the focus of attention will be on a risk priority basis, i.e. the higher the risk the greater the likelihood of enforcement and fines.
In view of continuing concerns, however, SCP has written to the GNR seeking clarification of their enforcement policy. We have asked that this be applied consistently and with “common sense”, taking into account various factors which we have described. A reply is awaited, however, we understand the ICNF and GNR are liaising closely on this matter and we will continue to monitor this.
To help property owners, SCP has issued its fifth “definitive guide to rural fire protection and land cleaning”. This guide cannot provide all the answers, as the laws can be quite complicated and are frequently changing but should help address the most important issues and, where clarification is required, provide the necessary contacts for further information. Here are some of the essential points which have been outlined to us in our meetings with ICNF and ANPC where the law can be confusing:
Areas of some confusion
ICNF has explained that “rural areas” means anything other than urban areas. It has nothing to do with your deed just the area where you live. If you live in a protected area, i.e. a natural forest, contact the ICNF before taking action to cut trees.
The tax authority has sent out leaflets showing a picture of a house and a 50-metre protection range devoid of any bushes or trees, hence giving the impression that everything must be cut down. This has caused much confusion. Intention is to “clean” not “clear”.
What is required – mandatory steps
Within 50 metres of the outer wall of your house:
The space between treetops (crowns) of trees, not the trunks, should be at least 4m apart. Maritime pine and eucalyptus should be 10m. However, ICNF have explained this is intended to thin out large areas and if you have a small group of trees that are closer than these ranges, this should not pose a problem provided the lower half is properly pruned.
Prune trees 4m above the ground. For trees with a height of less than 8m, prune the lower half of the tree.
Trees and bushes must be 5m away from buildings and treetops must not extend over the roof. However, under new decree law 10/2018, there is some flexibility given to trees with a “special heritage or landscape value”, providing the area around them is clear of vegetation.
Shrubs should not be higher than 50cm. Basically, this is aimed at avoiding an overgrowth over larger areas. ICNF advise: if in your garden you have individual or small groups of shrubs and bushes that exceed this height but are properly managed, this should not pose problems.
Do not keep firewood debris or any type of inflammable material within 50m from the house. ICNF advise that firewood should be kept in containers or outbuildings. If you do not have these, or your land is less than 50m, keep it as far away from the house as possible.
There are two main ones – cork oak and holm oak. If you have these, before starting work, apply to ICNF using the two forms (Poda) for pruning and (Corte) for cutting down. These can be downloaded from ICNF or SCP websites and sent by email to [email protected]
ICNF advise that if you have sent the form before March 15 and received no response by then, in case of any GNR inspection show them a copy and it should be no problem.
Fruit trees, including carob, almond and medronho trees, are excluded from the 4m rule but should not, as a general rule, be within 5m of the house.
Municipalities are responsible for cleaning 10 metres either side of public roads, regardless of the fact that this is privately owned. This means they are empowered to enter your land and clean. The standards for cleaning are the same, i.e. 4m between trees. Some councils may ask property owners to help with this. Advice is to do as much yourself, as you have greater control over what is removed. If councils do this, the wood cut can be sold by them not the owner.
If you have made attempts to contact neighbours with overgrown land within 50m of your house without success, or they refuse to clean, the only option is to report this to the GNR or local Civil Protection office. If this is done by March 15, then the municipality/GNR should visit and advise. If you do not report, with so many properties, the situation may continue and hence a risk to your house.
Priority for inspections
ICNF has drawn up a list of 1,089 parishes, including 24 in the Algarve, which are at greater risk and which will be the main target of inspections (and hence enforcement in the event of non-compliance). However, if your area is outside these, it does not mean you should not comply with the law.
Much of it is common sense and when deciding what needs to be cleaned, simply look at your land and ask a simply question – does this constitute a fire risk? If it does, take action. Also, even if your land is not affected by the laws, keeping it clean will help protect your house should a fire breakout nearby.
To view the guide to land cleaning, for other information and contact details, visit www.safecommunitiesportugal.com and go to the ‘Civil protection’ section.
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 www.safecommunitiesalgarve.com 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 www.safecommunitiesportugal.com launched in May 2015. He can be contacted at [email protected], or on 913045093 or at www.facebook.com/scalgarve
Photo: Ana Sofia Varela/Open Media Group