Image: Bruno Filipe Pires/ Open Media

“Today we are going to have the most serious day” – PM on Portugal’s agonising fire combat

Situation of Contingency extended until midnight on Sunday: 11 serious fires currently active

Prime minister António Costa has warned that even with the perceived fall in temperature, Thursday is going to be “the most serious day” in terms of fire combat so far through this stultifying heatwave.

“We have to take a great deal of care”, he addressed reporters this morning as the decree of a Situation of Contingency is extended to midnight on Sunday.

“According to the briefing from the president of IPMA (institute of sea and atmosphere), we are going to have the most serious day today, in terms of increase in temperatures and the strength of the wind”, he said.

“Yesterday was tough, with 200 rural fires, of which seven have carried through to today. We have to avoid new outbreaks. The current meteorological picture (high temperatures, low humidity, strong wind) will continue through the weekend, which is why we need to prolong the state of contingency until 23.59 on Sunday. Even so, from Monday, we will have temperatures above 30ºC – and temperatures will continue very elevated all through the next week.

“We have to take a great deal of care: a small lapse could spark another enormous tragedy. The answer is not in more ‘means’ (firefighters, water-bombing planes etc.) but in more care. Fire doesn’t start on its own, it is always caused by the human hand”.

Unable to fully control arsonists, the bottom line is that authorities want to try and control everything else.

The PM also warned that outside help – triggered through the European mechanism for emergencies of this kind – will always be limited.

Yesterday, the country benefited from the aid of four Canadair water-bomber planes (two from Italy and two from France), but these countries have situations of their own: “Spain is going through the same problem”, explained the PM. “Means are scarce on a European level. What we can rely on is the excellence and dedication of our firefighters – our firefighters, the GNR and the Armed Forces are doing their maximum”, he said.

And to ensure their efforts wrestle the country back from so many infernos, it is up to “every one of us not to provoke fires. We have to stay as far as possible away from forested areas”, he added – before leaving for the Council of Ministers, from which further ‘decision making’ may come through the course of the day.

Last night on SIC television, commentators discussed the PM’s focus on citizens for keeping the country safe from fire risks – one stressing that for all the PS leader says about the excellence and dedication of firefighters, it is ironic that “every year” the government delays in paying fire fighting stations what they are owed.

Consensus is that the whole structure of Portuguese firefighting response should change. Instead of relying on ‘volunteers’, there should be a properly paid permanent force, capable of responding to incidents with the resources it needs.

More of this will undoubtedly come when this critical period has passed.

Tabloid Correio da Manhã today, for example, stresses it is time for sentences for arsonists to be reviewed as a way of sending the right kind of message through to people who are often serial offenders but left to ‘walk free’ in society, until ‘the next time’.