Weather extremes – from fires to floods

This week marks exactly three years since the start of the Monchique fire, which burned for seven days consuming over 27,000 hectares of land, spreading to the neighbouring municipalities of Silves and Portimão.

Despite the efforts of over 1,100 operatives, at times supported by 13 aircraft and helicopters, the fire, fanned by high winds, became out of control, injuring 41 people including 22 firefighters, and destroying 74 primary residences and other buildings. Hundreds of businesses were affected and people lost their livelihoods. Fortunately no one died.

In August 2018, I wrote a feature for the Algarve Resident concerning the tragic wildfires in Greece that had resulted in over 100 deaths in a busy tourist resort.

This catastrophe, which occurred during a heatwave, was not a one-off and just recently we have seen extensive flooding in northern Europe and, in the last week, extensive rural fires in Sicily, Sardinia and Turkey. The floods, particularly in Germany, resulted in over 100 deaths, and the fires in Turkey have also resulted in eight deaths as well.

Some of these fires, like that in Greece, affected tourist resorts with extensive evacuations being carried out. Some 150 people trapped in two seaside areas in the city of Catania, Sicily, were evacuated by sea, where they were picked up by rubber dinghies and transferred to Coast Guard boats.

Meanwhile, panicked tourists in Turkey hurried to the seashore to wait for rescue boats after being told to evacuate some hotels in the Aegean resort of Bodrum due to the dangers posed by nearby wildfires, Turkish media reported.

Authorities asked private boats and yachts to assist in evacuation efforts from the sea as new wildfires erupted.

In Italy, ironically enough, while fires raged in Sicily, in the north of the country the civil protection authority had issued a warning of intense rainfall, predominantly downpours or thunderstorms, with gale force winds.

Such extreme weather events are becoming far more common, often taking populations by surprise and ill prepared to what unfolds – either fires, flooding or wind damage. This year in the EU, up to August 1, 191,353 hectares have so far been burned by wildfires, against an average from 2008 to 2020 (for the same period) of 131,563 hectares – a 45% increase. In Portugal, the figures are 14,668 and 27,723 respectively, a 47% decrease.

Extreme weather is becoming more of a “norm”, so it is important to be able to forecast these events using the best technology available, analyse the data determining the likely effects, communicate this to the populations and, of course, take all possible actions to reduce casualties.

Rural fires
Rural fires can start and spread very quickly and, as was shown in Greece in 2018, evacuations were hindered and people became trapped at the fire scene. Whereas being in a hotel close to a beach may provide a degree of reassurance that you may be protected by water, this is not always the case. Evacuations by sea may be very difficult especially if the shoreline comprises cliffs and rocks and moving inland could result in heading directly into the path of the fire!

Another factor to take into account is smoke. Many people die in rural fires due to smoke inhalation rather than being burned. In the 2018 Monchique fire, smoke spread for considerable distances covering some of the beach areas as well. More recently, the fire in Marmelete produced a similar result, but nowhere to the same extent.

It is essential, therefore, that people know what to do if affected by smoke – DGS advice in most circumstances is to remain indoors if possible, with doors and windows tightly closed. In more serious cases, await the instructions of the emergency services.

This is where timely and clear government communication is important as the smoke effects could cover a large population some distance from the location of the fire itself. In the Algarve, winds are often from the north or northwest, so smoke tends to move south or south-easterly. The main fire risk areas are north of the EN125, hence smoke can affect the southern parts of the region in large fires.

It is important that tour operators, hotel management, campsite staff and those operating outdoor activities have full knowledge of action to take in the event of a fire and that all tourists under their care also have awareness. This also includes AL accommodation.

Safe Communities recommends that hotels should display the daily risk of fire in their area and those managing local lodging should ensure that the accommodation has basic fire prevention and self-protection advice available, especially during the critical fire period. Such information should also be in several languages.

However, awareness is not just up to management; as clients, we also have a role to play. How many people, for instance, study the fire escape routes when checking into a hotel room? Too late when a corridor becomes full of smoke.

Safe Communities in 2018, working with the Secretary of State for Tourism, initiated the first national ‘Safe Holidays’ leaflet of which around 100,000 were produced and sent to all tourism centres. We are now repeating this exercise this time through the office of AGIF (Agency for Integrated Management of Rural Fire).
There are also those participating in off-road activities such as: cycling; hiking, camping, buggy, 4×4 and safari tours as well as touring in motor caravans. Although these are great ways to explore, the combination of low humidity, high temperatures and high winds greatly increases the fire risk, which both tour operators and visitors should be aware of.

Up to around three years ago, there was little safety information available, but the government, working with the various industries concerned including Safe Communities, has increased the safety standards for these activities especially that as regards camping. This is one reason why wild camping is illegal here in Portugal.

Imagine the situation where near a clifftop for instance, surrounded by lovely trees, you set up camp and there is a major rural fire nearby. Apart from not being able to escape, the possibility is that the emergency services may not even know you are there!

I mention these points as it is essential that we all adopt greater risk awareness as, in the event of extreme weather, knowing the correct action to take, may just save your life and that of your family.

More can be found in English at – Civil Protection

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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