Portugal: public anger mounts over government response to deadly wildfires

Portugal: public anger mounts over government response to deadly wildfires
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As flames engulfed the Portuguese municipality of Pedrógão Grande on 17 June 2017, and its 2,000 or so residents found themselves surrounded by the fast-moving fire, their immediate reaction might have been to escape. But 47 of the 64 people killed in Portugal’s worst-ever fire disaster died on the main road, which authorities failed to cut off on time. It is now referred to as the ‘Road of Death’.

Months after the deadly wildfires in Pedrógão Grande – which destroyed almost 30,000 hectares of land in the local villages and close to 45,000 hectares in total – victims are still struggling to rebuild what they lost, and public anger is mounting against the government’s inaction as wildfires continue to claim lives.

Nadia Piazza, president of the Association for Victims Affected by the Wildfires, lost her five-year-old son in the June tragedy. She condemns the government for a catalogue of errors including what she considers a slow emergency response and the failure to prevent the loss of life.

“There is nothing the state can do to make up for losing my son. It’s too late,” Piazza tells Equal Times. “But the government must take action to prevent more lives being lost.”

There are several reasons why the wildfires, which occur throughout the Mediterranean region every summer, hit Portugal so badly last year. For example, the prevalence of eucalyptus trees played an important role. According to an article on Phys.org, scientists have criticised the government for encouraging the “excessive planting” of highly flammable eucalyptus trees in a bid to shore up the country’s forestry sector, which comprises 3 per cent of Portugal’s GDP.

Rural depopulation (Pedrógão Grande, for example, which is situated about 200 kilometres north of the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, has seen its population cut in half over the past 50 years) and the impact of austerity measures on public services is also thought to have hampered the emergency response to the fires.

Observers are calling for improved forest management policies, more firefighters and better fire-fighting equipment.

Piazza also points out that it is a constitutional right for citizens to be informed of what to do during such an emergency. Too many people, including her son and former partner, died due to a lack of information regarding proper emergency protocol.

Other residents were luckier. “It was a miracle,” says 53-year-old Eduarda Lourenço. “There was no water, no firefighters. So, I decided to escape by car toward the national highway [the ‘Road of Death’] with my two sons.” After about one kilometre, the wheels on Lourenço’s car started melting, so they got out of the car and fled. A short time after they were rescued by an ambulance. Lourenço’s car – charred, hollowed-out at the front and parked in her garage – serves as a chilling reminder of the experience.

As the fire reached the village of Adega during the afternoon, 74-year-old farmer Olinda Conceição Martins used a water tank on top of her house to dampen the area around her home. This action, she says, spared her house from being consumed by the blaze. Firefighters only managed to get to her house at around 2am.

But Conceição Martins is still mourning the five relatives she lost to the wildfires. Her son’s home, just up the road, was ravaged, as was her firewood shack and her small farm of lettuces, bean plants, olive groves and animals. So far, the only help Conceição Martins has received is the food donated by generous locals.

There are public funds to help the victims, but it seems to be taking a considerable length of time for the residents to receive support.

The Revita Fund, created by the government to manage donations, raised around €3.8 million to be handed out to people who have lost their homes and farms. The state-owned bank CGD also opened an account for donations, with the bank itself donating €50,000 (approximately US$58,300).

However, there is some skepticism amongst survivors. “Let’s see if it [the money] arrives,” says 73-year-old Jose Vaz da Mata, as he walks over the rubble of the outhouse where he used to store firewood and farming equipment. Vaz da Mata lost 32 beehives and says he has suffered about €15,000 (approximately US$17,500) worth of damage.

"I do agriculture for personal use, so I am not asking for too much. I would be very happy to have just some of my machines back."

In February, the Portuguese government revealed plans to introduce 23 new laws as part of a decentralisation package that will reform local government funding. For centuries, Portugal has been one of the most centralised countries in Europe, with the decision-making power firmly held in Lisbon. These new laws could see residents in the interior of the country, like those of Pedrógão Grande, gain more control over small but vital decisions such as the kind of trees planted in their area.

But as the government discusses pledges to prevent new tragedies, the country’s fires continue to burn. In mid-October, around 600 wildfires killed at least 39 people in the central and northern regions of the country, in addition to four people in north-west Spain. As temperatures continue to rise due to climate change, many Portuguese people are wondering what will happen next summer.


Burnt trees in Pedrógão Grande ravaged by forest wildfires in June, which killed 64 people. 22 June 2017.

Photo: Marina Watson Pelaez

The Portuguese government has promised to prevent new tragedies but a more recent set of wildfires across the region killed a further 39 people.


On 22 June 2017, less than a week after the wildfires began, a man digs graves in the village of Facaia in the municipality of Pedrógão Grande, central Portugal.

Photo: Marina Watson Pelaez

Over 40 people from this village were killed in the fires. Survivors blame a lack of coordination and shortcomings in communication, as well as the lack of forestry planning for the scale of the devastation. They also say that there were not enough firefighters on the ground to evacuate families. There are currently around 5,000 professional firefighters in Portugal and around 25,000 volunteers.


A burnt house in the village of Facaia, Pedrógão Grande. 6 October 2017.

Photo: Marina Watson Pelaez

Wildfires that began on 17 June 2017 destroyed over 200 houses, leading to an estimated €7 million (approx. US$8.16 million) worth of damage. The Revita Fund, set up by the government, received a total of €3.8 million (approx. US$4.43 million) in donations. So far, €2.4 million (approx. US$2.8 million) has been allocated to support victims.


Olinda Conceição Martins, 74, stands in front of her car which was destroyed in the June wildfires. Nossa Senhora da Graça, Pedrógão Grande, 6 October 2017.

Photo: Marina Watson Pelaez

Conçeicao Martins says her life was spared because she was able to empty her water tank, thus dampening the area around her house and preventing the flames from spreading. Unfortunately, she lost five relatives during the wildfires, which has been described by Prime Minister Antonio Cósta as “the greatest tragedy we have seen in recent years in terms of forest fires”.


Seventy-three-year-old Jose Vaz da Mata walks over the rubble of what used to be his small agriculture storage house in Facaia, Pedrógão Grande. 6 October 2017.

Photo: Marina Watson Pelaez

Vaz da Mata lost all his machinery, his 32 beehives and estimates his agriculture damages to be around €15,000 (approximately US$17,500).


“It was a miracle [that I survived],” says Eduarda Lourenço, who lives in Cimo das Vinhas in the municipality of Pedrógão Grande. 6 October 2017.

Photo: Marina Watson Pelaez

“There was no water, no firefighters. So, I decided to escape by car toward the national highway [the ‘Road of Death’] with my sons.” Many residents have complained that failure by the police to close the N236 road, was one of the reasons why the death toll was so high.


Nadia Piazza lost nine members of her family in the June fires, including her five-year-old son. 6 October 2017.

Photo: Marina Watson Pelaez

Piazza, who is seven months pregnant, heads the Association for Victims Affected by the Wildfires. The group is calling on the Portuguese government to “take action to prevent more lives being lost” in future wildfires.