Preventing forest fires

Yes, I know I have covered this broad topic before, but this time I want to focus on the main causes of forest fires and what we can all do to help prevent them.

During 2016, a total of 13,333 forest fires occurred, burning an area of 154,944 hectares. Whereas the number of occurrences was less than in 2015, the area burned was more than double. In the first three months of 2017, there were 2,160 rural fires burning 6,487 hectares.

The causes of forest fires are varied. Most of them have a human origin, mainly through negligence.

One of the main causes is contravening the law on burning debris or pasture renewal burning during periods when it is not permissible to do so, or by not following the various safety regulations.

To reinforce this point, on April 20, 2017 there were around 100 forest fires across the country, around half of which were “bush” fires – debris and pasture renewal burning is likely the cause of many of these.

Undoubtedly, April has been a hot month with temperatures well over 30ºC in many places.

Heat itself, however, does not cause fires, but together with high winds and low humidity makes it easier for a fire to spread. This is why Portugal has a system of Forest Fire Risk ranging in five levels from green (“low”) to the highest brown (“extreme”).

The focus of this article is to remind us all concerning cleaning land through burning, the laws, obtaining permission and how to burn debris without causing a major fire, putting property and life at risk.

Cleaning land by burning

For many of us living in rural areas, the disposal of debris from tree cuttings and bushes is a constant challenge. The normal process is to burn these, but in doing so there are a number of laws that dictate when and under what conditions this is possible. Cleaning your land is essential to prevent the spread of fires, so understanding the law is essential.

However, sometimes there is confusion between burning debris and pasture renewal burning.

Debris burning (queima) is used mainly in the cleaning of land before the critical fire period and takes place after bushes, shrubs and tree branches have been cut, gathered together in small piles and then burned. However, do not place these piles under trees.

Pasture renewal burning (queimada) is generally for grassland renewal, the burning of stubble and forest debris that are uncut or cut on the ground, but not gathered into piles.

Both these types of burning are not permitted during the critical fire period (CFP) (July 1 to September 30), and when the fire risk is “very high” or “extreme”. It is important to note that, in addition, pasture renewal burning is not permitted when the fire risk is “high”. In other words, it is only permitted in “moderate” or “low” conditions.

Obtaining permission/permit

If you wish to burn debris in piles outside the CFP or when the risk is not “very high” or “extreme”, you should telephone your local Bombeiros and obtain permission. Given the weather conditions in your area, they will ask you a number of questions including the date and the time of the burning, and what you are intending to burn.

Pasture renewal burning

The burning of large areas such as in pasture renewal burning is only permitted after obtaining a permit/permission from the city council or parish in your area. If it is granted, it may need to be conducted in the presence of a certified firefighter or a team of firefighters. Contravening this is liable for a fine up to €60,000.

Precautions to take when burning fires

The ANPC has provided a comprehensive list of precautions to be taken when burning debris at times when it is permissible to do so, to avoid it becoming uncontrollable and threatening your life and property and that of others.

These include when and under what conditions fires can be lit and how they should be managed. Specifically it covers issues such as: humidity, air temperature, wind, avoiding slopes, feeding and monitoring fires, water supply, utensils to be available and the proper management during extinguishment.

If you are using local farmers and/or contractors to burn debris on your land, ensure that they follow this advice. Do not allow them to set fire to a large area of uncut vegetation, as this requires a licence.

One good piece of advice from civil protection when burning debris is to start early in the morning when it is cooler and damper and allows you more time to monitor the fire and prevent any re-ignition late at night.

Critical Fire Period

This is the period where special measures are in place to prevent forest fires due to exceptional meteorological conditions. During the CFP and outside this period when there is a “very high” or “extreme” fire risk, you are not allowed in rural areas to smoke, make fires, burn debris, undertake grassland or renewal burning or operate tractors, machines or heavy transport vehicles that do not have fire extinguishers, spark and ember retention systems, or flame dampers in the exhaust pipes or chimneys.

What more can we do?

“OK, I follow the law, but my neighbour and others don’t.” If it is obvious that they are burning land when the fire risk does not allow, then act immediately as allowing the situation to continue poses a potential threat to life and property. If you know them, tell them to put the fire out immediately – hopefully they will do so. If not, contact 112 – it is an illegal fire requiring the response of the emergency services.

Lastly, please remember it is prohibited to light barbecues in rural areas during the CFP or “very extreme” fire risk periods. Suitable authorised spaces should be used, built by local authorities or other institutions. In rural areas, you may use your purpose-built BBQ on your property, provided it does not pose a risk to surrounding combustible material/vegetation.

By David Thomas
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David Thomas is a former Assistant Commissioner of the Hong Kong Police, consultant to INTERPOL and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In October 2011 he founded Safe Communities Algarve an on-line platform here in the Algarve to help the authorities and the community prevent crime. It is now registered as Associação SCP Safe Communities Portugal, the first national association of its type in Portugal, with a new website launched in May 2015. He can be contacted at [email protected], or on 913045093 or at