Rural fires – keeping up the good work

Some good news arrived last week. According to the latest available data, so far this year there has been the lowest number of rural fires and the second lowest in terms of burnt area since 2011. So far this year, up to September 30, 7,253 rural fires have been registered, resulting in 26,838 hectares (ha) of burnt area, according to the Ministry of Internal Administration.

Most of the fires that broke out this year were small and consumed an area of less than one hectare, with only two fires occurring, in the municipalities of Castro Marim and Monchique, with a burnt area greater than, or equal to, 1,000 hectares.

Of course, one fire is one fire too many, but the fact that the number is the lowest in 10 years is showing that we are heading in the right direction. This compares with an annual average of 15,351 rural fires, corresponding to an annual average of 96,950 hectares of burnt area, for the period 2011-2021 between January and September.

In 2017, there was over half a million hectares of burnt area between January and December.

The effect of extreme weather conditions is being felt in many ways and one of these is increasingly drier and hotter summers. One of the tools that fire commanders and analysts use in fighting fires is the FWI – the Rural Fire Hazard Index. This determines how easy it is for fires to start and spread. The higher the figure the greater the risk of it spreading quickly with an increased potential for it covering a larger area.

In the Algarve this year, national records were broken on two occasions with an FWI level of well over 100 in certain areas. It becomes maximum level when it reaches 64. The risks can be extreme, and we need to act accordingly.

Causes of rural fires
When it comes to the causes of rural fires, the most frequent cause of those investigated in 2021 is the negligent use of fire (48%), namely controlled burns that have become out of control.

The use of fire in the Mediterranean area has a recognised value when associated with agricultural and forestry practices, in particular the burning of piled-up waste and large-scale controlled burns. However, in some cases, these activities can get out of control, resulting in major fires with severe ecological and socio-economic consequences. In mainland Portugal, some 98% of incidents are caused by people.

It was noteworthy that on October 1 this year, the day following the end of the critical period, the number of fires doubled, no doubt due to carelessness in undertaking controlled burns. This is why safety is so important if we are to avoid the risk of such fires causing widespread damage and possibly injury or even worse.

Types of controlled burns
(Queimas) – the use of fire to dispose of piled-up waste resulting from forestry or farming operations, such as pruning vines and olive trees, among others.
During the critical period and outside of the critical period, on days of very high or maximum risk, waste-burning is prohibited unless prior authorisation is obtained from the Câmara Municipal, by calling 808 200 520 or through the ICNF website.

Outside of the critical period, whenever the risk of fire is high, moderate or low, all that is required is to communicate and register the burn at the Câmara Municipal, on 808 200 520 or through ICNF website giving advance notification. For repeated burns, you can download an application (Android only) using a QR code on the ICNF website:

Extensive burns
(Queimadas) – the use of fire to restore grazing land or eliminate stubble and waste from forestry and farming operations, cuttings and non-piled-up waste.

Regardless of the time of year and risk, controlled burns require prior authorisation from the Câmara Municipal. This can also be done online using the ICNF page or calling the same number as above. Without authorisation and proper technical monitoring (by a technician qualified in prescribed burning and a team of forest firefighters or fire brigade), controlled burning is considered to be arson and is punishable by a fine.

Safety measures during controlled burns
If you are getting someone else, such as a local farmer, to undertake the burn for you, ensure that the appropriate authorisation has been obtained or registration made. It is your land, and you could be held liable if this has not been followed.

So, how do we keep up the good work?
The ICNF (Institute for Nature and Forest Conservation) has provided very helpful safety measures (shown in the table), which, if followed, will allow you to have a safe burn during periods where it is permitted to do so, without the risk of the fire becoming uncontrolled and threatening your life and property and that of others.

Preventing rural fires is everyone’s responsibility and actions that should be avoided include, for example, dropping lit cigarettes, using a barbecue in an unauthorised area or using motorised garden tools carelessly.

We can all make a difference by following rural fire prevention and safety measures.

– Ensure, before you start, that you have the necessary authorisation/registration.
– Burn early in the morning, when humidity is higher, which also allows the fire to be properly extinguished before nightfall. Remember embers can last for several hours (or longer) leading to re-ignitions.
– Always have a mobile phone with you.
– Preferably have two people to conduct the burn.
– Monitor the fire – do not leave it unattended.
– Have a water supply nearby.
– Ensure that the area around the burn is free of vegetation to avoid it spreading.
– Make several small piles instead of one big one.
– Never burn in windy conditions or where the land slopes steeply.
– Despite these measures, if the fire does become out of control call 112 immediately.

By David Thomas

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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