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ENVIRONMENT-PORTUGAL: Summer Heat and Forest Fire Hell

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Aug 18 2006 (IPS) - In just two weeks of the northern hemisphere’s hottest month, fires raged through 36,000 hectares of forest in Portugal and 89,000 in the northwestern Spanish region of Galicia. And history keeps on repeating itself every August in these two lands with similar languages, customs and geography.

>From Jul. 31 to Aug. 14, fires in Portugal destroyed an area equivalent to four times the metropolitan area of Lisbon, and three times the 13,591 hectares consumed by fire from January through July.

But the fires were far worse in Galicia, across the border in Spain, where at the end of the first fortnight of August the area reduced to ashes had gone from 2,241 hectares to 88,473 hectares – in other words, 39 times more scorched land in two weeks than in the previous seven months.

On Aug. 8, in spite of the dangerous situation in Portugal, Lisbon sent several teams of firefighters to the aid of their Spanish counterparts. On Thursday, they returned home after having successfully protected villages and scattered homes deep in the verdant Galician forests.

According to a preliminary report released by the Galician government Thursday, when the fires were finally brought under control, the worst-hit province was Pontevedra, with 38,500 hectares devastated by fire, followed by La Coruña with 28,000, Orense with 8,500, and Lugo with 2,000.

During the fires, something over two percent of Galicia’s total surface area of three million hectares were in flames. Five hundred villages and a thousand homes scattered in the countryside had to be protected from the fires. Two women burned to death when they were trapped in their car by the fire, and 30 people have been arrested on suspicion of arson.


So far this year, 50,000 hectares on mainland Portugal and her Atlantic archipelagos of Madeira and the Azores have gone up in flames, according to figures released Thursday.

In spite of this worrying information derived from the European Union’s satellite-based European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS), the Portuguese government pointed out that the total burned area up to the end of July was less than one-sixth of the average for the same period in the last five years, when the area burned by fire averaged 90,000 hectares.

Up to Jul. 31, the total area burned in the EU amounted to 64,500 hectares, “much less than” the 610,000 hectares which burned in the same period in 2005, said the EFFIS report, which did go on to say, however, that “the fire season is not yet over.”

António José Teixeira, editor of Diário de Notícias, the leading Lisbon newspaper, is one of the Portuguese reporters who has been most prominent in searching out the root causes of the forest fire scourge.

In an interview with IPS, he said “it is well-known that the summer heat is associated with fires, and for a long time we have looked on fire as a fact of life in the summertime, sort of as just one more season of the year.”

“Fires appear to just come out of the blue as an untamable force without any rational explanation,” he said. At first, people are “stupefied by the magnitude of the problem,” but then they “get used to it as though it was inevitable, and they only get frightened and cry out when the fire is at their very door.”

In fact, this has been going on for several years now. In the heat of the flames, everything is questioned, successive governments are blamed, the dead are mourned – eight so far this year: five Chilean firefighters, one Portuguese fireman and two civilians – and the usual conclusions are reached: lack of land use regulations and zoning, poor forestry management, a failure to adequately mobilise the public, and insufficient inspections and monitoring.

This summer, the administration of socialist Prime Minister José Sócrates raised hopes and there was even talk of a “fire-free Portugal.” However, Interior Minister Antonio Santos da Costa himself acknowledged on Monday that fire prevention measures have failed to achieve the desired results.

The minister said that although the fire-fighting measures have been successful, which explains the diminished severity of the fires as compared to previous years, “the real problem is the general state of our wooded areas, and if this does not change in the next few years, we will experience an increasing number of fires”.

The measures put into effect this year included a forestry strategy making it obligatory to clear combustible brushwood, the demarcation of forest management zones, more and heavier fines, and improved communication flows between the ministries of Agriculture, the Environment and the Interior.

By order of the national Prosecutor General’s Office, the police are coming down heavily on suspected arsonists, 18 of whom have been arrested on charges of arson or starting fires with malicious intent, possibly at the instigation of another party.

The relative success in fighting the fires was aided by two Russian Beriev BE-200 amphibious aircraft, the largest of their kind in the world.

Ninety percent of a longstanding debt of 63 million euros, contracted by the Soviet Union before it broke up in 1991, is to be repaid by Russia to Portugal with four BE-200 hydroplanes, which can also be used for rescue operations at sea.

Although Minister da Costa has not yet given his final word, the Russian minister of Finance, who is responsible for the debts of the former Soviet Union, said in Moscow that a verbal agreement had been reached with Portugal.

Meanwhile in Lisbon, the commander of the national fire-fighting service, Gil Martins, praised the “additional advantage” that the Beriev’s discharge capacity of 12,000 litres represents in comparison with other planes, including the Canadair, its closest rival, which can only carry half the volume of water that can be scooped up by the Russian hydroplane.

However, it appears that the main problem is not fighting fires that have already broken out. According to the editor of Diário de Notícias, “generalised negligence continues to go unpunished, brushwood clearing of the forests remains no more than good intentions, and neglect is the general rule in a large part of the country.”

The solution, according to Teixeira, is to adopt “a new paradigm in which local mayors and city councillors are held responsible for more harmonious development.”

Meanwhile, Portuguese newspapers gave special coverage Thursday to a study published on Tuesday by the University of Bristol, which predicts an increase in forest fires, droughts and floods over the next two centuries, due to global warming. According to scientists at the British university, even if greenhouse gas emissions were to cease immediately, loss of forested areas would continue in Central America, Eastern Europe and the Amazon jungle region of South America.

The study warns that regions that are now semi-arid, like the south of Portugal, will become more vulnerable to forest fires, and over the next two centuries a significant loss of fresh water is predicted to occur in southern Europe, Central America, West Africa and the eastern United States, with a concomitant increase in droughts.

Given this state of affairs, the Operational Programme of Agriculture and Rural Development admitted on Wednesday that Portugal will not achieve the target set for projects eligible for EU financing, of 90,000 hectares to be reforested during the period 2001-2006. Instead, only 48,405 hectares will have been reforested.

The effects of this failure could be devastating. According to the department of soil at the Lisbon Superior Technical Institute, there is a particularly high risk of soil erosion in areas burned by fire that have not been reforested, because there is no surface protection at all.

 
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