special firefighting force as it prepares to leave Lisbon yesterday.jpg

Portugal one of only two European countries to respond to blazing Chile’s request for international assistance

With wildfires in Chile the worst in the country’s recent history, Portugal is one of only two European countries to have responded to an appeal for international assistance.

France too has become involved, as elsewhere the US, Peru and Mexico have already answered calls for back-up.

Portugal’s contribution is a group of 52 crack professionals from Civil Protection’s “Special firefighting force” who left Portugal on Friday lunchtime and should be in Chile and ready for action by this time tomorrow.

Secretary of State for Internal administration Jorge Gomes was at the airport to commemorate the trip, explaining that it came very much through Portugal’s “very large debt of gratitude” to Chile, which lost five sapper firemen in Portuguese wildfires in the summer of 2006.

Portugal’s support is “a response of solidarity, recognition and gratitude”, he stressed. Although Portugal will always be ready to respond to calls for help from friendly countries, he said this one from Chile elicited “a lot of emotion”, and was thus answered within 12 hours.

Chile’s ambassador to Portugal was also on hand to see the firefighters on their way, saying the Chilean government was “profoundly grateful” for Portugal’s response at this “very difficult time”.

The horror of Chile’s current fires is that for reasons the local government is trying to fathom roughly half the country’s firefighting planes are out of commission.

The US boosted air support recently, sending a 747-400 supertanker capable of carrying up to 73,000 litres of water – the combined equivalent of 72 missions by helicopters and 20 by light planes.

It has not been explained how long Portugal’s firefighters will remain in Chile, nor whether the 52-man squad will be ‘reinforced’ over the course of the next week. Reports simply state that so far over 300,000 hectares of forest have been destroyed in several different blazes, a number of which are believed to have been started intentionally. Herds of cattle have died, while whole towns with thousands of buildings have been razed to the ground. So far, at least 10 people are known to have died.

In an emotional Facebook post, Monchique mayor Rui André has added a very personal side to this news story, uploading photographs of his nephew Miguel who is one of the 52 firefighters now giving support to the Chileans.

“Even though we have a large age difference, I can say that if there are men cut out from an early age to be firefighters and to serve others my nephew is one of them. My brother, his father, would have been so proud” André added, ending “Come back soon!”

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PHOTO: taken in Lisbon airport on Friday as the 52 special firefighters set out on their mission.