Wildfires spell millions for private firms

After 10 days of rampant wildfires through the north and centre of the country, the situation has calmed to the point that damages are being totalled, communities are looking forwards at the momentous job of rebuilding, and politicians are talking about “debating real reform for the forests”. But something else is in the air, and it promises to ignite a very different kind of fire. A simple sentence dropped in parliament last week by secretary of state for internal administration Jorge Gomes has opened a Pandora’s Box of accusations and recrimination.

The simple sentence was: “The wildfire industry gives money to a lot of people.”

Jorge Gomes “did not go into details”, explains national tabloid Correio da Manhã – in fact, Público gave him the ‘out’ by quoting his subsequent aside that this was a “personal thought”. But the damage was done.

News channels over the weekend seized upon the story, revealing that “the largest operator in this (wildfire) marketplace received more than €48 million just in 2015”.

This operator is Everjets, the firm purchased by BragaParques owner Domingos Névoa in February last year, after the lucrative four-year contract had already been signed with the civil protection authority.

As CM explains, the contract came to be the target of an investigation by DCIAP (the central department of penal action and investigation) and the PJ’s national unit for the combat of corruption.

And then Everjets went on to fail in its undertakings. Instead of six heavy-duty Kamov craft being ready to take on blazes when the situation arrived, one fell out of the sky and two more were grounded by technical faults.

None of the craft will be operational before next year, which is why the government has had to spend yet more money on further private planes.

The lack of clarity in what led to Portugal appealing for European aid last week has prompted NGO Transparência e Igualdade – Associação Cívica (an offshoot of Transparency International) to challenge the government to come clean over how much it is really shelling out on firefighting – suggesting there is easily more than €200 million spent in various ways.

“Information on the destination of these amounts is scarce, almost secret”, says TIAC. “And the few details we have discovered are worrying.”

Indeed, the NGO says this is not just a matter of public transparency. Addressing its appeal to parliament, the government and the country’s accounts court, TIAC claims that risks of poor management of Portugal’s scarce resources are “a reality” – and that what is needed now is an above-board evaluation “of the merit” of the many millions channelled into private companies for the combatting of wildfires.

As if on cue, on Tuesday morning, Correio da Manhã revealed that the State pays Agro-Montiar, a services company that rents out planes for fires and agriculture, “almost €5 million for 1,350 hours of flying divided between two (Canadair) aircraft”.

It is a price tag that the air force has already said it could undercut, and which a working group set up to scrutinise government expenses in this area indicated last year would be better spent on purchasing the aircraft themselves.

But while these rumblings continue, Jorge Gomes’ description of how some of the worst blazes appear to have started set a veritable cat among the pigeons.

The horror for instance that assailed Águeda for four days last week “began at 4.05am with a front extending 5kms”, he explained, asking: “How can this be achieved? What resources were used to kick-start a front of this dimension?”
On social media, there is already a short clip showing diagrams suggesting how a plane is much more likely to have caused the blazes in the north last week than any “criminals working on the ground”.

Thus TIAC’s call for transparency, once and for all, while prime minister António Costa has been busy trying to calm the furore, saying “it is the lack of (a proper policy of) prevention that sees so much money being spent fighting fires, the fruit of incorrect options taken in the past”.

For now, whatever transpires in the way of sums spent on fire protection this year – and money needed to rebuild – the truth is it has been the worst summer for decades. Madeira has already seen two cruise ships cancel scheduled stop-offs as the island is pitted by lunar-landscape swathes of charcoal and there is none of the habitual ‘joie-de-vivre’ in the streets. The devastated island has set damages at over €55 million, and scores of families face the exhausting prospect of starting again from scratch.

Here, the mayors of the worst affected boroughs are still totting up the millions they will need for repairs.

In Arouca, mayor José Artur Neves is talking about damages in excess of €120 million.

“Fifty eight per cent of our forestland has been destroyed”, he told journalists on Monday, stressing Arouca’s forest was “one of the pillars of the borough’s economy”.

The wasteland that now replaces Arouca’s hectares of green means that 1185 head of cattle will have nothing to eat for the “next seven months”, he added.

“Fifty eight families dependent on grazing their animals now have nothing to feed them”. If these families receive no help, Neves said “they will have no alternative but to sell their herds and move from the region” – thus compounding the whole problem of desertification that has seen the country’s interior reduced to vast tracts of ‘abandoned, inflammable forestland’ over the last few decades.

By NATASHA DONN [email protected]