Around four years ago, I had the privilege of accompanying Val Charlton, Managing Director of Landworks NPC, an expert on rural fires and Firewise Communities in South Africa, on a visit here at the invitation of the Portuguese government.
We visited a number of areas in the country including Monchique and Aldeias do Xisto, Coimbra, and we gave presentations to various stakeholders on rural fire-risk assessment and self-protection, Safe Communities Portugal focusing on safe tourism. Val has very kindly shared her expertise and that of other experts, which is the subject of this feature.
Portugal has been identified as one of the Southern European countries at highest risk from runaway damaging forest fires, with changing climatic conditions increasing the risk further. Nature is a powerful adversary, yet we love to live close to it, be surrounded by it and become complacent about how furiously the forests can burn once alight.
Landscape fires are not all bad. In fact, Mediterranean ecosystems are fire-adapted – born to burn – and need to burn from time to time to maintain biodiversity. The cork on a cork oak is there for a reason! Over eons, the tree has adapted to survive fire by hiding its buds under a thick, fire-resistant layer of cork, and it re-sprouts after a fire.
Most indigenous Mediterranean plants have developed a fire survival strategy. Unfortunately, some non-indigenous plants have the same strategies but like to burn at higher temperatures! Australian acacia and eucalyptus are two offenders that have invaded Portugal, massively increasing fuel for landscape fires.
Fire survival strategy
So, what is the fire survival strategy for homes and the families that live in them? Research in the USA has proven that, when Firewise precautions have been taken, most structures have a fair chance of withstanding the force of a wildfire under moderate conditions.
Ideally, a fire should be able to happen as a natural event without firefighters needing to place their lives on the line to protect a property, because the home is designed, positioned and maintained in such a way that the fire will go around it, and measures are in place to protect it against ignition from flying embers. This sounds far-fetched, but it isn’t! Weather severity and surrounding fuels do play a big role in the survivability of a home, but there’s much that can be done to reduce risk.
Take a good look at your roof
Land cleaning, of course, is most important in reducing the risk of a fire reaching your home. However, there are also “little things”, according to research undertaken by USA specialist Dr Jack Cohen, that cause homes to ignite.
Most homes that burn down ignite after the main fire has passed over, not from the radiant heat that they are exposed to during the main fire, provided that there is a reasonably clear zone in the immediate area around the structure.
Flying embers that accumulate in the nooks and crannies are most often the culprits. The roof is the most exposed area. The remedies are often simple and inexpensive. Check for loose or lifting roof tiles and any place where windblown embers can accumulate. Box in eaves. Close any gaps between corrugated roofing and the roof structure. A non-flammable roofing material is always less risky. Keep gutters clean of leaf litter. When the fire is approaching, block downpipes and fill gutters with water.
A sprinkler system with an independent water supply also helps but make sure you can depend on the water and electricity supply as these often go down during a wildfire.
Fit fine mesh to air vents. Clean out dry vegetation from under decks and apply fire retardants to wooden decking.
Keep a special set of buckets, hosepipe, shovel, a fire beater, sacking, stout shoes, long-sleeved cotton or woollen clothing, long pants and head covering all together in a fireproof place (inside the house!) in case of ember attack.
An independent water source such as a swimming pool or rainwater tank is invaluable. Electricity is often the first thing that goes down, so an electrically driven borehole can’t be depended upon and municipal water pressure is needed by municipal firefighters, so there is often a drop in pressure. Don’t keep large quantities of flammable liquids on the property.
Make sure your driveway is clear and wide enough to take a fire tender. Properties should have a number and address prominently displayed at the roadside so that emergency services can find you if you call for help. Reflective numbers are best under smoky conditions! Buffer Zones push back and manage the vegetation at least 30m from structures – more if the home is on a slope or there are very large dense trees, such as a plantation, on your boundary.
If you choose or are ordered to evacuate
A well-built and well-prepared home is able to withstand far more than a human! Smoke and heat can become intolerable. If you are going to leave, leave as early as possible.
Have a checklist prepared and make sure the family knows what to do when fire approaches. Remember pets. Don’t wait until the last minute – leave early – it is much safer. Take family pictures and memorabilia – people that have lost their homes say that this is what they most regret losing in a fire.
Close all windows. If drapes are heavy, close them, but if lightweight, open them as they may ignite from radiant heat.
Leave lights on inside the house so that firefighters can see whether there is still power and can check inside for people. Remove wooden garden furniture to a safe distance from the home or put it inside. Open all gates so that firefighters can get in.
Return as soon as firefighters give the all-clear. Systematically work around the structure and check for smouldering embers and spot fires.
More can be found about Firewise communities here: https://landworksnpc.com/firewise/
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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