More than 720 devastating wildfires in 48-hours. Forty-two deaths. Over 70 men, women and children in hospital. Hundreds of dead animals in burnt-out byres, fields and forests. Over 200 homes destroyed. Countless lives and livelihoods shattered. Upwards of 250,000 hectares of woodland and forest blackened – the overpowering stench of horror mixing now with grey sheets of rain. Portugal is in mourning.
As the government faces an ominous backlash, citizens movements are mounting protests.
The President of the Republic has issued an ultimatum: no more tragedies like last Sunday can ever be allowed to happen again. The way this government and every other that comes after it acts – in terms of prevention and combat – has to change.
The “worst day of the year for forest fires” came four months after the infernos of Pedrógão Grande where 65 people died – and just as three separate technical reports commissioned into the June fire tragedies agreed that “everything” failed: from coordination on the ground to means, manpower, expertise and overall forestry management.
Sunday was exactly the same. Panicked phone calls between emergency centres have been reported over national media.
Example: to the CDOS (emergency service coordination centre) in Viseu: “This is the commander of Santa Comba. Right now there are flames approaching houses in the village of Cagido. We need reinforcements, now”.
Response: “OK. Do what you can. This is all lost” (literal meaning: a disaster).
A bit later, from central command back to the Commander of Santa Comba: “This is Morais. Get yourself in a car. Everything’s burning. We don’t stand a chance…”
In the words of tabloid Correio da Manhã, the State’s already widely-criticised SIRESP telecommunications network collapsed “the moment it was necessary”.
“At least 45 masts that serve as the base of the system were destroyed by the fire, and operatives were left using the old analog firefighting operational network (ROB) created in the 80s”.
Civil Protection’s spokesperson Patrícia Gaspar told one of the many press briefings that Sunday saw a total of 523 separate wildfires – from Leiria in the centre to Monção in the north. The next day brought another 199.
With the scaling down of preparedness sanctioned by the government there was simply not enough man- vehicle- or airpower to go round.
But to be fair, this is only part of the reason why the government now is in the hotseat.
On Tuesday, CDS leader Assunção Cristas went public with a bid to mount a motion of no confidence, claiming the State had failed in its most basic function: to protect its people.
Hours later, President Marcelo built on the challenge, saying it was not only time for the government to “ponder” how it means to serve its citizens in the future, but time for parliament to decide whether it wants the government at all.
This was the cue for the beleaguered minister of internal administration – a woman who has at times looked like she was being supported through bereavement – to officially tender her resignation.
To some extent this is all ‘expedient drama’. Assunção Cristas and her party could be held as much to blame for the fire disasters as any other. It was under Cristas’ stint as Minister of Agriculture that yet more eucalyptus plantations were waved on their way – this being the mono-culture so often blamed for the country’s devastating relationship with wildfire tragedies.
But the truth is that so much of what has gone wrong over the last few decades traces back to the Socialist Party.
Lagos councillor and former CDS MP Artúr Rego explains: “It was the PS who created the ANPC (Civil Protection authority whose coordination capabilities this summer have been universally slated), the PS who extinguished the body known as Forestry Guards, the PS who decided the Air Force did not need to intervene and help in the combat of fires, the PS who decided not to buy firefighting helicopters but instead hire private planes, the PS who spent hundreds of millions on a communications system that does not work.
“Even worse, a lot of these bad, ruinous, decisions that originate in tragedy were taken by António Costa when he was a minister in other governments and while he has been prime minister now”.
As we went to press, Costa was due to meet President Marcelo as the latter was also expected to hear how the government’s allies in this so-called ‘gerigonça’ feel about continuing their support of the administration.
Over social media, both the Left Bloc and PCP communists have been scathing over the government’s response.
As Cristas’ inferred in her press statement announcing the motion of no-confidence, “it hasn’t assumed responsibility, hasn’t given one apology, in short it has shown no humility” (Público), and the necessity for “civic humility” was one of the cornerstones of Marcelo’s address to the nation hours on Tuesday evening.
So, how will this awful of truly awful weeks end? Will the government fall? Will anything change? Will communities get the financial aid they need to rebuild?
The answers should become clearer on Saturday when the Executive will be holding an emergency Council of Ministers, purportedly to adopt recommendations of the independent technical report into the fires of Pedrógão Grande.
PM Costa has already conceded publicly that “after this year, nothing can remain as it was before”.
It is now simply a question of seeing how much is going to change.
As for the ‘no confidence’ motion, it is unlikely to topple the government. Similar bids in the past have failed – bar one which saw the collapse of Cavaco Silva’s government in 1987, only to see it return with the first absolute majority in the history of Portuguese democracy.