One dead as 360 fires rage and calls for more air support “fall on deaf ears”

One person has died and dozens have been forced to flee their homes as Portugal continues to face the latest devastating round of forest fires.

In the space of the last 24 hours, 360 blazes flared – almost 25% of them during the night.

As authorities have been quick to point out, “this is not normal” – and almost certainly down to the inexplicable propensity in this country for arson.

But worse than this is the fact that conditions have made firefighting even more difficult than normal.

Reports explain that the “chimney effect” (efeito chaminé) – forest fires whose flames are quickly fanned up by winds – means that small planes and helicopters usually used to dump water on blazes are rendered practically useless.

The only air support strong enough to weather ‘chimney fires’ are Canadair amphibian craft, of which Portugal only has two.

“Conditions call for four more Canadair planes,” writes national tabloid Correio da Manhã. “But the government, for now, has opted not to ask for them.”

For the time being, it appears the country’s leaders are hoping the last two days are the worst of what we will be facing.

Said environment minister Matos Fernandes, the record for fires this year is “still well below” the toll of last year.

But this will bring little comfort to the huge number of communities that are currently being affected. And it is unlikely to cheer firefighters who are, in almost every fire station up and down the country, absolutely exhausted.

Social media has been carrying appeals for dry socks, nutritious snacks and water to be handed in to local fire stations, while photographs of shattered firefighters lying on the cobbles, grabbing moments of calm despite the lack of comfort, are being widely shared.

Even though the Algarve has had its share of blazes (see separate story), the lion’s share of this week’s horrors are in the north and centre, with the boroughs of Águeda and Arouca worst affected.

In Arouca, firemen were said to be running “this way and that”, incapable of making much difference as a major blaze raged on seven fronts.

Houses were evacuated, old people’s homes cleared in situations of heightened drama, and in some situations, neighbours grouped together in random places of shelter where they hoped to escape the flames.

In Arcos de Valdevez (Viana do Castelo) people fled to a chapel as their homes were threatened.

The local mayor actioned the municipal emergency plan, like his counterparts in Ponte de Lima and Viana do Castelo.

In Valongo, the situation claimed this year’s first fatality – a 60-year-old man with various health problems, some of them “of a respiratory nature”.

The combination of panic, smoke and stifling heat proved too much for him, said CM, while the borough’s mayor José Manuel Ribeiro said he was “very worried about the situation” – particularly as so many firefighters were on the point of physical collapse due to exhaustion.

Comments in the press that “this is the same every year” are now prompting calls for an effective national strategy against fires.

Fines handed out to landowners who do not keep their properties clear of combustible material “do not seem to have worked”, say reports, nor has the €80 million invested in firefighting response changed the panorama significantly.

For now, the strategy appears to hinge on simply hoping that things will calm down as temperatures drop. But whether they will drop significantly or for long enough is what no-one can tell.

For an up-to-date picture on how the country is faring, see:

Meantime, 500 GNR agents were drafted in this afternoon to bring new energy to the various fronts and boost exhausted fire-fighters.

In Madeira, the situation is also critical with 174 people injured in various fires sweeping the island and 27 homes rendered uninhabitable. President of the regional government Miguel Albuquerque is calling for “a heavy hand” for one man arrested already for arson.

Couple hailed as heroes for handing out 1000 litres of water on blocked A1 motorway

Among all the stories of panic and desperation, there is the heartening account of a Portuguese couple that purchased 1000 bottles of water to give to travellers held up in 5km queues on the A1 on Sunday (click here).

Lucinda Borges, 33, and Paulo Pereira, 44, handed out all the bottles from behind a fence along the road and were applauded by drivers and families blocked in their cars.

The couple refused to accept any payment for their welcome gesture.

[email protected]