Rural fire prevention and self-protection

Yes, it is this time of year again. So, what has changed from last year and what do we need to do to protect our homes from the risk of rural fires?

Last year was a better year as there were fewer rural fires and areas burned – certainly compared with the average of the last years and particularly 2017 and 2018.

There is little doubt in my mind that people are more aware of the need to reduce the risk of the spread of fires and indeed fires starting in the first place.

More information is available than ever before in multiple languages, plus the increasing fines for the non-compliance of fuel management laws and an earlier deadline of March 15 last year prompted people into action.

What has changed since last year?
The answer is, in terms of new laws very little. Following the fires of 2017, there was a plethora of new laws – almost impossible to keep up to date with. This year the only main change has been to the list of high-risk fire areas. Some have been added and others taken away, depending on the conditions in the areas concerned. For example, Monchique parish was always on the list, but not last year, mainly because a great deal of it burned in 2018. However, this year it returns to the list.

The other thing that changed is the weather, particularly in the south where parts of the Algarve are in severe drought conditions. With less rain than usual, this winter has meant that vegetation is more susceptible to the spread of fires. This risk will increase as the weather becomes warmer and the dry weather continues.

What should residents now do?
Please see our Top 10 Checklist, which we advise you to cut out and keep handy.

Regarding neighbouring land which is overgrown and in the event of non-compliance, report this to the GNR as soon as possible. All complaints, where verified as a fire risk, are acted up on a priority basis. So do not delay.

Many people clean their land by burning stubble (extensive burns) or by burning heaped and piled debris. As the uncontrolled use of this last year caused over half of the total fires, it is important to register with the institute of nature and forest conservation (ICNF), where you can obtain assistance and, secondly, if you are doing this yourself, follow the important safety measures.

High-risk fire areas
These are identified each year as priority parishes for the purposes of monitoring fuel management (land cleaning). The latest law was passed on February 26 by the Assembly of the Republic reference, Diário da República no. 40/2020, Series II of 2020-02-26.

It identifies around 1,200 high-priority parishes at risk of rural fires and the timeline for inspections, including 28 parishes in the Algarve.

A change since last year is that there is only one class of priority areas; where before it was classes 1 and 2.

Basically, this means that high-priority area inspections will commence from April 1. Those not in high-priority areas may also be subject to inspection.

Fuel management
Most of the general laws concerning fuel management remain the same as 2019.

Land cleaning needs to be completed by the same deadline as last year, i.e. March 15.

The inspection of the cleaning of lands adjacent to buildings (i.e. in a range of 50 metres); and for clusters and industrial areas (in a range of 100 metres) will be carried out between April 1 and May 31.

A dedicated line for information on matters such as land cleaning and all issues concerning protection measures is 808 200 520. Use this also for registering to burn debris or contact your local Câmara or register online through Detailed information can be downloaded from the Safe Communities Portugal website (Civil Protection/Rural fires/Land Cleaning).

From our meetings with the GNR National Headquarters, they have emphasised that their strategy is awareness, warnings and, as a last resort, fines. Enforcement will be based on common sense and much of this will be focused at the priority areas identified.

How you can help
We all need to do our part, by sharing these important messages, reporting overgrown neighbouring land and, of course, keeping our own land in order.
Please share the safety information from our Safe Communities Portugal Facebook page, so it reaches the widest audience.

Rural fire prevention and protection
Top 10 action list
1. Check if you are living in a high-risk fire area.
2. Undertake land cleaning without delay – if advice is required, contact local civil protection or hotline 808 200 520 – remember deadline March 15.
3. Neighbouring land – if it poses fire risk, and cannot be resolved, contact GNR as soon as possible.
4. Prepare your house by cleaning roof, terraces and leaves from gutters.
5. Controlled burning of debris – ensure registration/authorisation/permit is obtained before and follow safety regulation.
6. Familiarise yourself with self-protection measures under the Safe Village – Safe People programme.
7. For those in high-risk areas – prepare or update an emergency evacuation kit.
8. Emergency contact numbers – keep at hand.
9. High-risk areas – familiarise yourself with village and evacuation plans and assembly points. If none, identify an escape route and safety point.
10. Developments – keep up to date through the ICNF, ANPC, IPMA websites and that of SCP.

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 2011, he founded Safe Communities 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.
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