500 Fires in One Day: Lessons From Portugal

by António Ferraz De Oliveira

18 October 2017

Contando Estrelas/Flickr

This week Britain stopped to look at an eerie orange sky. The Met Office explained this unusual effect resulted from Storm Ophelia transporting Saharan dust, as well as smoke from wildfires in Spain and Portugal.

Before arriving to Ireland and parts of Britain, Storm Ophelia brought warm air and strong winds to the Iberian Atlantic coast, leading to over 500 wildfires sprouting in one day. Over 6000 firefighters engaged the flames, which have burnt an area of over 58,000 hectares (143,000 acres). Although most of these fires have now been controlled, they have left behind immense damage and caused the death of at least 45 people.

Despite having called a state of emergency to handle the wildfires, the Portuguese government has been sharply criticised for failures in its response and now faces a vote of no confidence in parliament and calls for the resignation of the interior minister, Constança Urbano de Sousa. The prime minister, António Costa, has downplayed claims of executive mismanagement. This accusation has been levied as evidence of the government’s failure to learn from June’s catastrophic Pinhal Interior blaze, which left 64 dead, 254 wounded and made ashes of 53,000 hectares. In a televised address, Costa rejected accusations of emergency mismanagement and promised to address “decades of flawed forestry planning.”

“After this year,” he said, “nothing can be the same.”

But the prime minister’s speech does not inspire hope. Hope fails not because of mistrust in his government but because his promise sounds all too familiar. Indeed, at the end of each summer’s wildfires, the Portuguese have grown accustomed to hearing the promises of increasing firefighting capacities and increasing police action against known arsonists. Such promises fill attentive observers with pessimism. They betray a major misunderstanding: that wildfires are ‘natural disasters’, striking randomly and unexpectedly. In reality, while Portugal’s wildfires are physical events, their tragic scale and impact cannot be called natural.

Summer fires are a feature of Iberian and Mediterranean climates, experienced seasonally not only in Portugal but also Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey. The increased intensity of these fires can be partially attributed to climate change. In particular, raised temperatures and drought have led to a prolonged wildfire season (five months instead of two) – a trajectory documented in the yearly reports and maps produced by the European Forest Fire Information System. In spite of these shared circumstances, however, Portugal has been notable for experiencing a steeply disproportionate number of fires, casualties and burnt areas, raising a number of questions.

Above and beyond climate, Portugal’s wildfire problem stems from decades of human-made environmental mismanagement and impoverishment. Environmental impoverishment follows the mass spread of pine and eucalyptus monocultures, the most profitable trees in a depopulated countryside. Whilst eucalyptuses drain water and kill competing vegetation, pines are highly flammable. Together these monocultures ensure an accelerated desertification, making the environment more susceptible to massive wildfires. To make matters worse, in the aftermath of fires, these two species tend to be chosen by most replanting efforts, reinforcing an environmental downward spiral. In short, for decades Portugal has been planting the ecological equivalent of kegs of gunpowder, sowing seeds of barrenness.

Compounding this systemic environmental impoverishment, successive Portuguese governments have failed to adopt any serious forestry and landscape planning. By repeatedly placing emphasis on firefighting capacities, the state has missed a thousand opportunities to apply simple and effective planning reforms – such as ensuring a safety perimeter around roads and houses surrounded by highly flammable forests. The state’s lack of activity in this context is not the result of ignorance. In 2005, for instance, following the major fires of 2003, a state-commissioned comprehensive forest reform plan was produced by an array of geographers and environmental scientists. To this day, their recommendations remain to be implemented. Today, as in previous decades, the tragedy of Portuguese wildfires stems from successive governments’ lack of focus on preventative planning.

In the aftermath of the latest tragedy, it is important to question governmental promises of action and change. The problem of wildfires is well established and threatens to become much more severe. Firefighting capacities are important, and compensation and regeneration efforts in burnt areas remain essential, but ambitious preventive planning has to be central to the response. It is time for Portugal to invest in a sustainable environment, not solutions which only render fires dormant.

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