Vale do Rio fire 1961
Vale do Rio fire 1961

Wildfire management – learning lessons from the past

When Safe Communities Portugal attended the International Wildland Fire Conference 2023, alongside 1,600 delegates from 80 countries, in Porto last week, we learned that, globally, recent extreme weather events have caused unprecedented damages and impacts on communities, economies and the environment.

Climate change is the key driver behind the growing occurrence of extreme wildfires, vulnerabilities have increased and we are more and more likely, in various parts of the world, to have more complex wildfires.

Wildfires, however, are not new to Portugal. As long ago as 1824, there is an account of a forest fire which consumed about 5,000 ha in Leiria region and, in 1882-1883, there was a fire in the “Matta do Bussaco”, mentioned by Navarro (1884) in his book Quatro dias na Serra da Estrela (Four Days in the Estrela Mountain Range).

The 1950s and 60s, however, marked the beginning of what would become the seasonal scourge of large forest fires in Portugal, resulting from the exodus from the mountain regions and progressive abandonment of forest-related activities, closely connected to the decadence of agricultural activity, which slowly left woods to their own devices.

Vale do Rio/Figueiró dos Vinhos fire 1961

Forests were no longer managed, bush was no longer cleared because it had no use, and firewood was no longer used as a source of energy, leading to the accumulation of biomass in forests. Thus, the 1960s had some large forest fires, such as the Vale do Rio/Figueiró dos Vinhos in 1961, Viana do Castelo in 1962, Boticas in 1964, and Sintra in 1966.

In the fire of Vale do Rio/Figueiró dos Vinhos (1961), the high temperatures in the region, at the end of August, combined with the economic and social changes that were starting to affect the agro-forest space, contributed to the development of a large forest fire that became memorable for having consumed the villages of Vale do Rio and Casalinho, in the municipality of Figueiró dos Vinhos, Leiria District.

“At 4pm on August 28, a fire of huge proportions broke out and crossed the River Zêzere, and, pushed by strong winds, it spread in several directions. The fire had a 15-kilometre front, from Atalais, in the municipality of Pedrógão Grande, to the parish of Arega, in the municipality of Figueiró dos Vinhos.

“It joined another fire that had started near São Neutel’s mountain range and threatened the town of Figueiró dos Vinhos. In total, 14 settlements of the municipality of Figueiró dos Vinhos were threatened by the flames.” (Unpublished report, sent to the Fire Marshall of the South Region, April 23, 1963).

The losses amounted to half a million trees, “2500 hectares of pine forest burned”, two charred villages, Vale do Rio and Casalinho, where “185 people were left homeless”, and two dead, “due to asphyxia and fatal burns”.

The newspaper A Regeneração reports the destruction witnessed by its reporters: “We saw twisted and calcined bed irons, signs of spillage of fat, burnt corn, sheep, goats, pigs, potatoes and domestic utensils, pieces of clocks, broken pots with spilled olive oil, charred threshing floors, everything deformed, terrifying.

“The soldiers opened long ditches, bringing dozens and dozens of charred and mutilated domestic animals on stretchers to be buried. It was a sinister spectacle, terribly marked. The few who returned from the place (Vale do Rio) did not seem like people, they were more like human rags, downcast by deep moral and physical depression.

“The scale of the catastrophe made it impossible for it to be concealed from the media, which reported the cataclysm in detail, which gave the then Chamber of Deputies, led by Ernesto Lacerda, the strength to demand support and financial help from the central government to deal with the situation, and in February of the following year, by order of Arantes e Oliveira, Minister of Public Works, work began on the reconstruction of the village of Vale do Rio as well as the widening and improvement of the municipal access road to the village.”

The new village of Vale do Rio was inaugurated in 1964 by the then President of the Republic Almirante Américo Tomás, the first time that a Head of State visited Figueiró dos Vinhos.

Sintra fire 1966

On September 6, 1966, around noon, a forest fire started in the Sintra mountain range and lasted until the 12th. The fire, which alarmed the entire population of Sintra, was spotted by a park ranger, who was the first to inform forest authorities that there was a fire. The flames spread out with the help of high temperatures and constant changes in wind direction. The presence of incandescent components in the air led to new fire fronts across the municipality.

Sintra was a town taken by fire. The entire region was “surrounded by a huge cloud of smoke – black and thick – visible kilometres away. At night, the flames lit up the mountains.  More and more fire brigades arrived. The sirens were the screams of the night!”

The fire burnt down a significant part of Sintra’s forest, endangered iconic infrastructures like the Palácio da Pena, and affected other small villages due to flying ash. During this tragic event, 25 firefighters lost their lives while suppressing the fire.

Lessons learned

The wildfire events described above have a common denominator: a lack of safety procedures in the rural areas.

The wildfires highlighted the critical need for proactive fire prevention measures. They emphasised the importance of educating the public about fire safety, implementing stricter regulations on land management and monitored burning, while promoting responsible behaviour to minimise fire risks. They also highlighted the need of developing infrastructure.

The wildfires exposed the vulnerabilities of existing infrastructures and emphasised the need for improved road networks, rural accessibility, and water supply systems. Developing infrastructure in fire-prone areas can enhance emergency response capabilities and facilitate firefighting operations.

These are just two of the key lessons that can be drawn from these past experiences. Others include, inter alia, actions on long-term planning and policy, forest management and reforestation, preparedness, coordinated emergency response, stakeholders’ collaboration, and improved research and technology.

Sources: Newspaper “O Ribeira de Pera”; TóZé Silva, Newspaper “A Regeneração”; Natário, 1997; Lourenço et al., 2012; Ferreira-Leite et al; Pinto (1939) in his work “O Pinhal do Rei”.

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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