Wildfires in Portugal peacebenwilliams.com

In the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis that affected all Portuguese people, Portugal has had good moments that will always be remembered. For instance, the election of the new President, the very optimist Prime-Minister who is able to keep a minority government with the support of the left parties represented at the Portuguese Parliament. Moreover the victory of Portugal in the Euro 2016 as well as at  the Eurovision Song Contest 2017, The end of the financial crisis together with the fact that Portugal is no longer in breach of the bloc’s budget rules, mark some good news/highlights for this small country during the last years. 

Unfortunately, on Saturday 17th of June, just one week after Portugal’s National Day, the good moments were put an end to. Portuguese people faced one of the greatest tragedies during Portugal´s democratic history. Every summer, Portugal faces vast wildfires. Habitants from small villages in the countryside are used to live surrounded by the fires, putting their own lives at risk while trying to protect their lands but this June 17th marked  an unusual day. The high temperatures (over 40 degrees celsius), low humidity rate and dry terrains because of almost no rain during the last months left the Portuguese lands under alert.

The dry thunderstorm that was felt in the centre region of Portugal started the biggest wildfire that Portugal has ever seen. The Portuguese authorities are still trying to understand the origins of the fire that started at Pedrógão Grande region, they said that was provoked by a lightning in a tree, but locals have a different version. They will need time to investigate what really happen, but Portugal will not forget those tragic days and solutions have to be found to prevent next tragedies like this one.

It took four days and help from Spain, France and Italy to stop the Pedrógão Grande wildfire. A tragedy that took the life of 64 people and left more than 130 injured. Most of the deaths happened in the first day, when people were trying to run away from the fire but they were caught in the flames, dying inside of their cars. Portugal that is used to live with wildfires during the summer time, was shocked by the intensity of this wildfire and decreed three days of national mourning.

The Portuguese authorities did a disastrous management of this tragedy, services that were not ready to act, some even did not work, fake news about the fall of an airplane used to fight the fire and the non-authorisation of the entrance of Galicians firemen in Portugal to help in the fight against the flames. These facts show the lack of coordination and preparation of the Portuguese authorities due into a certain point to the lack of investment in the firefighting corporations and in forest rangers, that government after government were not able to promote.

Portugal is one of the world's leading countries in paper production, due an increasing of production the vegetation of the Portuguese territory has been receiving more “outsiders” in detriment of native trees. Oaks, cork oak and holm oaks have been replaced by pines and eucalyptus (the last one used by the pulp and paper industry). Those trees, in opposite to the native trees, are highly flammable and can easily provoke uncontrollable fires, as the one in Pedrógão Grande region.

Desertification and depopulation are another problems affecting the countryside of Portugal, less than half a century ago agriculture was a rich sector but the lack of interest by the young in agriculture is leaving the small villages of Portugal without people capable to cultivate the fields. They now prefer to live in the big cities and work in their own office. Entire villages are being emptied of people, only the old people remain there, as they are not able to cultivate the land, their villages are surrounded by wild forests which are a big danger during the Summer wildfires. 

During each Summer Portuguese governments have been saying that something needs to be done, unfortunately politicians tend to forget their promises, and when they came back from their summer holidays they start discussing other matters and forget the tragedies that Portuguese people have been living Summer after Summer. The Predrógão Grande tragedy is not easy to forget, political parties finally recognise that something needs to be made in order to prevent similar tragedies. 

The Predrógão Grande wildfire, might have started by natural causes, showing that we have to take the climate change seriously, but extreme weather events should not be used as an excuse when during years the fire brigades and forest rangers faced lack of investment. The political parties have to face the real problems of the Portuguese countryside, they should look to a long term politics that will bring sustainability and balance to the Portuguese ecosystem, rather than to look to short term politics that will give them some votes in the next elections. New laws are about to be discussed at the Portuguese Parliament that hopefully will bring a greener future to Portugal and prevent such tragedies as the one in Pedrógão Grande.