US experts advise Portugal on forest fires.jpg

US experts advise Portugal on forest fires

PORTUGAL NEEDS to improve its training and organisation if it is to win the battle against wild fires, according to a team of US Forest Service Prescribed Fire Specialists, who addressed a recent Lisbon-based conference, reports The Resident’s Gabriel Hershman.

American Ambassador to Portugal, Alfred Hoffman Junior, and Agriculture Minister, Jaime Silva, also attended the event that was held at the American Embassy. In his address, fire specialist, Art Torrez, explained how he and four others had travelled on a 30-day fact-finding mission to advise Portuguese authorities on how to avoid a repetition of devastating forest fires. The team – Torrez, John Caffin, Mike Cook, Tom Fitzpatrick and Bob Serrato – visited Manteigas, Bragança, Amarante and Vieira do Minho in the north of Portugal. Each person was assigned a particular zone and travelled separately.

Torrez, a fire specialist from California, paid tribute to the professionalism and dedication of Portuguese crews and thanked the authorities for their hospitality. But he said that their visit had highlighted the need to improve training, management and planning. In particular, Torrez cited the need for prescribed fire standard operating and safety procedures to combat blazes.

Education is vital

Torrez said that there was a need for more firefighters on the ground and that proper co-ordinated contingency planning against wildfires was essential. Team leaders should be divided into ‘burn bosses’, ‘holding bosses’ and ‘ignition bosses’. He said a standard ‘Burn Plan’ should apply in all cases – ‘burn bosses’ should be able to obtain site-specific weather forecasts from meteorologists. They should also be well versed on how to deal with fire ignition and fire suppression operations and tactics.

All firefighters should receive first-aid training as well as live fire experience. They should also be equipped with a minimum complement of standard personal equipment comprising hardhats, gloves, goggles, protective clothing, portable weather instruments and programmable radios. Torrez also called for a nationwide education programme, possibly involving prominent Portuguese celebrities, to teach young people about fire prevention.

Speaking to The Resident, Torrez explained why he thought Portugal was particularly prone to forest fires. “Portugal has had a long culture of agricultural burning and I think that culture needs to be changed. We had the same problem in our country. They need extra resources, but they particularly need to build up their organisation, providing personnel with well planned training,” he said.

The fire specialists agreed that nothing substituted for sufficient personnel on the ground. Significantly, they denied that aerial support was a decisive factor. “It’s a tool that can be utilised, but aircraft alone will not put out wildfires,” said Florida-based fire specialist John Caffin.

“There will always be catastrophic fires, but I think we can work towards limiting their size, if we strategically place some of these prescribed practices around natural resources,” Torrez added.