Burning hell under Portugal sky
The deadliest fire still rages after killing 64 people, the country received EU help
23 June, 2017
Firefighters work to put out a forest fire near the village of Fato, central Portugal.
Burnt cars block the road between Castanheira de Pera and Figueiro dos Vinhos.
Aerial view of a forest fire is seen from the cabin of a Spanish firefighting plane.
More than 2,000 firefighters battled Portugal's deadliest wildfires in the central region of the country, where one blaze killed 64 people, while authorities came under mounting criticism for not doing more to prevent the tragedy. 70 people, including 13 firefighters, were taken to hospital with burns and injuries as the fires ravaged the central districts of Leiria and Castelo Branco. At least 26,000 hectares of land have already been burned.
Water-dropping planes from Spain, France and Italy arrived as part of a European Union cooperation program but they were grounded in some places because thick smoke limited visibility, officials said. The Canadair aircraft came down near Pedrogao Grande, local media reported. There has been no confirmation of casualties.
Two army battalions were helping the emergency services. That left firefighters - backed by fire engines and bulldozers - doing the heavy work on the ground in temperatures that approached 40 degrees Celsius last Tuesday. Firefighters brought some of the blazes under control, but other wildfires still raced through inaccessible parts of the area's steep hills, the Civil Protection Agency said.
At least half the victims died in their cars as they tried to flee along a local motorway. Many other bodies were found next to the road, suggesting they had abandoned their vehicles in panic. The firefighter who died on 19 June had been helping people out of their cars when he was badly burned.
Scorching weather, as well as strong winds and woods that are bone dry after weeks with little rain, fueled the blazes. Villages dot the landscape, much of it now scorched. Police said a lightning strike on a tree probably caused the blaze, in a region hit by an intense heat wave and dry, gusty winds that fanned the flames. However, the regional prosecutor still ordered a criminal investigation into the causes. Many forest fires in Portugal are caused by arson or carelessness. The government has declared a state of emergency in the forested region around Pedr?g?o Grande, north-east of the capital, Lisbon.
Prime Minister Antonio Costa, who on 18 June visited the affected a mountainous area about 200 km northeast of Lisbon, called it the biggest human tragedy in Portugal in living memory. Despite government assurances that the first response by the emergency services was swift and adequate, media and residents questioned its efficiency and the strategic planning in a country which is used to wooded areas burning every year.
"So what failed this Saturday? Everything, as it has failed for decades," read a headline in the newspaper Publico. It blamed a lack of coordination between services in charge of fire prevention and firefighting and poor forestry reserve planning. Emergency services have also been criticised for not closing the road where most of the deaths occurred.
Xavier Viegas, a wildfire expert at Portugal's Coimbra University, said Portugal needs a long-term strategy, but changes in government often mean changes in forest and farm policies. He said the blaze spread too quickly and violently for firefighters to respond in some villages, but the deaths have mainly shown shortcomings in communications to evacuate people in time.
"It's still hard to identify what failed, but it's a bit of everything," Viegas said. "Obviously, certain things that should have been done had not been done - especially in communicating with the population, telling them about the danger levels, areas to be avoided." According to him, a key measure would be the creation of "fire-resilient communities" who receive instructions on what to do when faced with a wildfire and don't act rashly. "We need to prepare them so that they don't go dashing off in cars," Viegas told AP.
An online public petition demanding an investigation into possible failures by the authorities has gathered 440 signatures. Some local residents said they had been without the support of firefighters for hours as their homes burned. Many blamed depopulation of villages that left wooded areas untended.