Portugal on fire: black Sunday sees 364 blazes with 26 boroughs on maximum alert

After a catastrophic weekend that saw as many as 364 active fires ablaze throughout Portugal, the country remains on “maximum alert in 26 boroughs”. In the Algarve, this means Monchique – devastated by fires in 2003 and 2005 – is once again tipping the scale for danger.

Elsewhere, 100 boroughs have been labelled “high risk” while the rest of the country is pegged at “elevated risk” with only a few isolated microclimates where the risk is considered moderate.

As meteorological experts warned last week, Portugal is looking at the highest fire threat level in 16 years – and the country’s firemen are bearing the brunt.

Over the weekend as many as 500 were fighting fires throughout the country backed by 200 vehicles, eight planes and six helicopters, and 100 others were dispatched to Spain where they helped tackle a blaze that had been out of control for days.

Three-hundred men were called to a devastating fire in Vila Nova de Cerveira (Viana do Castelo) on Saturday, and on Sunday 200 were still battling to bring it under control.

With temperatures yesterday nudging towards 40ºC, the only saving grace was that wind was non-existent.

Even so, three firemen were injured – one seriously – fighting a wildfire in Serra da Estrela while all over the country householders joined forces with civil protection authorities in valiant bids to save their homes and properties.

In Miranda do Corvo a resident told reporters: “The fire came so fast. I could hardly breathe. I truly thought I couldn’t save my home. Ten years ago we had a big fire here. We were all running about with hoses. But this was much worse.

Forecasters have warned that the threat level this year is such that any blaze can “reach brutal force” within a matter of 20 minutes.

What has been on firefighters’ side this year so far is that injuries have been kept to a minimum and there have been no deaths.

Anyone who can remember 2013 will recall the terrible deaths of eight firefighters and one mayor as they battled a country on fire.

At the time, firefighters’ organisational skills came under intense criticism, but this year there has been none of that – with Secretary of State for Internal Administration João Almeida guaranteeing that operations are being effective and there is no shortage of manpower or equipment.

Even so there have been some miraculous moments where death and serious injury have been avoided against all odds. One of the best examples came on Saturday when an Everjets helicopter carrying five GNR GIPS (special ops) agents crashed as it came in to refuel from firefighting in Valença. Only the pilot had to be hospitalised but, as newspapers reported at the time, both he and the policemen “escaped death” by a whisker.

For now (Monday), the 26 boroughs at most risk of fire, other than Monchique here in the Algarve, are: Mação, Vila de Rei, Sertã , Sardoal, Pampilhosa da Serra, Gois, Oleiros, Figueiró dos Vinhos, Miranda do Corvo, Arganil, Sabugal, Guarda, Celorico da Beira, Fornos de Algodres, Trancoso, Vila Nova de Paiva, São Pedro do Sul, Castro de Aire, Vale de Cambra, Castelo de Paiva, Cinfães, Arouca e Povoa do Lanhoso, Ponte da Barca and Caminha.

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