Portugal fights wildfires with new tactics as heatwaves raise risk

A fire fighting helicopter works to contain a wildfire in Leiria, Portugal

A fire fighting helicopter works to contain a wildfire in Leiria, Portugal July 13, 2022. REUTERS/Rodrigo Antunes

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Five years after a disastrous wildfire claimed 64 lives, Portugal is rethinking how it battles climate change-worsened blazes.

  • Deadly mega-fire in 2017 sparked firefighting reforms
  • Government now prioritising prevention and preparedness
  • But experts say political will is waning as fresh blazes rage

COIMBRA, Portugal - Along the main motorway in Portugal's rural interior, the scent of eucalyptus perfumes the air. The smell may be pleasant - but it is also a source of fear for local residents.

Stands of eucalyptus - a fast-growing but highly flammable Australian native tree - helped fuel a massive wildfire in 2017 that killed 64 people and injured more than 250 in the town of Pedrogao Grande, in central Portugal.

Many of the victims burned to death in their cars trying to escape the blaze on national road EN236-1, now known as the "road of death" after the worst disaster in modern Portuguese history.

Amid Portugal's tinder-dry forests, many such arteries remain a danger.

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"This is a road you don't want to be on in case of fire," said forest engineer Luis Paulo Pita, before turning his car onto a gravel side road leading deeper into a forest in Coimbra district, where he is working on fire prevention efforts.

The firefighter-turned-engineer is part of a national drive - which brings together civil servants, experts and communities - that aims to reshape fire management in Portugal and avoid a repeat of 2017.

Following the disaster, the government banned new eucalyptus plantings, announced sweeping land reforms and invested in a range of projects to protect local communities most at risk of wildfires in Portugal's central and northern districts.

The country has also pivoted from a focus on firefighting to fire prevention, largely by experimenting with innovations to make the land less flammable.

The work has drawn international admiration and appeals by other nations for help and training to replicate the work.

But residents say that milder weather conditions are the main reason the country hasn't seen another deadly blaze like that in 2017 - and experts and officials warn that funding and political will to tackle fire threats are waning five years on.

The remaining risks are evident, as a series of large wildfires swept through north and central Portugal this month, injuring dozens of people and uprooting hundreds as firefighters struggled to extinguish flames amid a European heatwave that is predicted to trigger more blazes.

Globally, as climate change brings more heatwaves and drought, the number of extreme wildfires is expected to increase 30% by 2050, with fires becoming tougher to put out, recent studies by the United Nations and in the journal Nature noted.

In central Portugal, most residents are now aware of what they should do to stay safe from fire threats, such as knowing good escape routes and taking refuge in areas with water or little vegetation, Pita said.

But as memories of the 2017 disaster fade, some prevention efforts are falling away, he said.

"If you look around the houses, I can say that they already forgot 2017," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, gesturing to wildly overgrown forested areas that post a blaze risk near villages.

'Still in the woods'

As part of its new approach to tackling wildfires, Portugal has established an integrated fire agency (AGIF) uniting conservation officials, police, the army, and private forestry firms to streamline both prevention and firefighting efforts.

Tiago Oliveira, who heads the agency, said too much money had been spent previously on tackling the fallout from fires instead of addressing their causes.

The AGIF now urges communities to clear land of scrub, create evacuation plans for high-risk villages, and issue permits for controlled burning of debris.

The agency also has taught forest engineers and firefighters how to create fire breaks through prescribed burns.

In 2021, the country registered the lowest number of rural fires in the last decade, according to data from the Forest Fire Information Management System (SGIF) in Portugal.

Despite such progress, the long-term abandonment of rural land, as young people seek opportunities in the country's cities, remains a major challenge.

About 30% of rural properties in Portugal are now unclaimed, Oliveira said, with disused property rapidly accumulating flammable undergrowth.

As a result of such challenges, only 20% of AGIF's fire prevention goals have been achieved, despite growing knowledge and willpower to act, he said.

The coronavirus pandemic and other competing government priorities also mean "we lost a lot of time ... (and) the political priority is no longer the fire," he added, even though a share of COVID-19 recovery funds have been earmarked for preventing and fighting forest fires.

Portugal's efforts to reshape fire prevention have drawn interest from other countries and regions battling wildfires, including California, South Africa and Australia.

Firefighters from Austria and Germany are training in Portugal, and the country is set to host an international wildfire conference in 2023.

A U.N. Environmental Programme (UNEP) report in February urged governments to rethink their response to wildfires, and spend more on prevention and preparedness than firefighting.

But as global warming helps drive harsher wildfires, Oliveira fears many governments will be too busy battling blazes to spare funds and thought for better prevention.

"Pay something and you have a firefighter, an aeroplane, a helicopter," he said, lamenting that forest engineers and land owners doing prevention work are "never the heroes".

Community first

While eucalyptus forests are blamed as a major contributor to wildfires in Portugal, forest engineers such as Pita say how land is managed is the key issue.

Residents in fire-prone areas complain no one pays much attention to forests except when they're on fire. The region's landscape is dotted with abandoned farms, and government presence is limited.

New eucalyptus trees sprout from burnt saplings

New eucalyptus trees sprout from burnt saplings, the species is adapted to surviving and recovering after fire in Coimbra, Portugal, June 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Joanna Gill

New eucalyptus trees sprout from burnt saplings, the species is adapted to surviving and recovering after fire in Coimbra, Portugal, June 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Joanna Gill

"They've given up on the territory," charged Joao Camargo, an environmental campaigner with Portuguese non-profit Climaximo, saying rural areas were increasingly economically and politically irrelevant to policymakers as the country's population heads to its cities.

AGIF sees reversing the rural exodus and revitalising agriculture as key to cutting fire risks.

"If you want to preserve the landscape, you have to eat (from) it," said Jose Gaspar, a civil engineer at the Agrarian School of Coimbra who also teaches at the national firefighting school nearby.

Brush-eating sheep and goats - who can clear fire-prone land cheaply and effectively - are key part of fire prevention. Rural shepherds have received subsidies to run their herds, with funding expected through 2024, by which time the effort should be self-sufficient, Gaspar said.

Allowing local people to take charge in reducing fire risk on land they manage trumps a top-down fire prevention approach, researchers said.

After the 2017 disaster, for instance, residents of Ferraria de Sao Joao - a village about 24 km from Pedrogao Grande that only narrowly escaped the same fate - took it on themselves to cut a eucalpytus-free buffer zone around their community, without waiting for government help.

Forgotten forests

The mental scars from the 2017 wildfire run deep in Pedrogao Grande, where locals say they feel abandoned by the government and that promises have fallen short.

For example, the ban on new eucalyptus trees does nothing to cut risks from plantations already in place before 2017, meaning the town remains surrounded by eucalyptus, as before.

The campaigner Camargo, who recently visited the area, said the continuing fire risk faced by villagers was "soul-wrenching", with big fires still possible in dry and hot conditions.

Five years ago, Rui Rosinha was a volunteer firefighter rescuing people from the blazes. One night, he and his fire crew found themselves surrounded by flames after their vehicle got into an accident.

The 44-year-old was badly burned and ended up in a coma for three months. He then spent another three months in hospital and underwent about a dozen surgeries to treat his injuries.

A fellow firefighter in the car - a childhood friend - also burned and died shortly afterward in the hospital.

"My life changed completely after 2017," said Rosinha, a representative for AVIPG, an association for survivors of the fire. His injuries mean he has had to retire from firefighting.

At AVIPG, Rosinha now advocates for more fire prevention measures - and believes the government has not done enough.

"When there is a fire, people are evacuated," he said by phone. "But in terms of prevention, there's a failure."

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