A local throwing a bucket of water onto the burning brush – Photo: LUÍS FORRA/LUSA
A local throwing a bucket of water onto the burning brush – Photo: LUÍS FORRA/LUSA

Portugal plunges into ‘hellfire’

Monday morning saw fires raging in the south, centre and north of Portugal

Almost exactly at the point where the Pope bid farewell to Portugal, the country appeared to be engulfed by ‘hellfire’. There were fires in the south, fires in the centre, fires in the north.

On Saturday, Secretary of State for Civil Protection Patrícia Gaspar said the government was considering “a State of Alert”.

Early on Monday morning, as the principal fires were still ‘digging in’, minister for interior administration José Luís Carneiro, said there didn’t seem the reasons for a State of Alert: the weather was getting ‘better’ (stultifying temperatures would be dropping, humidity would be rising, winds falling). But even as he said that, hundreds of people in the south were being evacuated from homes and rural tourism businesses in the municipalities of Odemira, Aljezur and even the little hamlet of Marmelete, in the borough of Monchique.

Roughly 1,400-plus people were ordered out of their homes and accommodation in the parish of São Teotónio where the south’s worst blaze so far this summer erupted on Saturday afternoon.

Flames reached the village of Odeceixe; leapt the river into rural parts of the municipality of Aljezur and encroached into the perimeter of Monchique.

While the mayor of Odemira kept citizens updated through social media, residents in Aljezur had to resort to creating their social media groups, to keep each other informed of road closures, fire trajectories, wind directions and places where temporary accommodation would be offered.

Monday evening was ‘the worst’ for communities down south: the northern horizon for those in the municipality of Aljezur just one long stretch of orange and red.

But Tuesday morning brought a feeling of calm: the fire was still active, but the winds had dropped significantly; firefighters seemed to be getting a handle on things.

Elsewhere, the main concerns for authorities were blazes in Cinfães and Leiria. That doesn’t mean there weren’t incidents elsewhere, just that Cinfães and Leiria were on a par with the situation in Odemira, “critical, difficult and complex”.

Leiria’s fire began on Monday afternoon – ditto the fire in Cinfães. Both required road closures. By Tuesday morning, the first was considered to be ‘in resolution’ with the warning that increasing wind speeds could see all this change.

Past years have tended to see the causes of wildfires spelled out in the early stages. This year, this isn’t the case. It is as if everything is the fault of ‘climate change’ and ‘the boiling planet’.

Odemira fire: flames raging close to Aljezur on Monday, August 7 – Photo: LUÍS FORRA/LUSA
Odemira fire: flames raging close to Aljezur on Monday, August 7 – Photo: LUÍS FORRA/LUSA

International reports on Tuesday actually stated that Portugal has been “grappling with record-breaking temperatures during the peak summer tourist season”, when in truth, temperatures have been very much the same as they are every year. The summer invariably sees heatwaves, but overall, this far it has not been ‘unusual’.

This doesn’t fit the new narrative however, so – according to publications like the Daily Mail – we have “hundreds of tourists fleeing tourist resorts”. Up until now, this has really not been the case. We have had hundreds of people evacuated for precautionary reasons, most of them Portuguese residents.

This far, there are no reports of damaged businesses, nor of fire-damaged tourist resorts.

The São Miguel campsite – in the thick of the Odemira fire – was evacuated early on, but again, no reports have come in yet of any damage to it. There is the report of damage to homes in the village of Vale Juncal, to which residents have now returned.

What has been clear, however, is the stress villa management companies have had in coping with client concerns. “People are super worried,” one told us. Fires raging in the background do not improve the holiday atmosphere, and when there is a dearth of easily spelled out information, people panic.

Thus, businesses like Rental Service Aljezur have been ‘up all night’, glued to various information services which it then relays to clients calling in.

Stories that haven’t yet made it into the press are those of ‘people living on their land’ in unregistered ‘dwellings’. Some have “lost everything”; others are desperately looking for animals they let out of pens or coops in the panic of evacuation.

There have also been heartening stories of neighbours turning up in tractors to plough great channels in the undergrowth around other people’s homes. These channels act as firebreaks: stop flames reaching houses.

Back up in the centre and north of the country, dozens of smallholdings, however, have ‘lost everything’: beehives, tools, fruit trees, cork trees, sheds full of implements.

It is the same every year: a moveable nightmare of dismal probability. It has seen leader writers appeal for a proper strategy (once and for all) for forestry planning (so much easier said than done) and a particularly harsh look at Odemira by Correio da Manhã’s deputy editorial director general Eduardo Dâmaso, who believes the municipality has been blighted by “greed and irresponsibility.

Odemira has been consumed by fire and lack of water,” Dâmaso claims. The municipality is yet another forgotten niche in Portugal where “those who could change something have been entertained with nationalist propaganda, and the good that World Youth Day has brought for the brand ‘Portugal’.”

This is a viewpoint that many will have been thinking in Odemira, Aljezur and very possibly Monchique on Monday as winds tore through the landscape; sirens filled the air; the horizon was peppered by silent explosions of black smoke – and news from Lisbon was that political leaders really didn’t think there was any reason to sound a State of Alert …

By Natasha Donn
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