Portugal, in the line of fire

The smell of ash and eucalyptus still hangs in the air months after Portugal’s forest fires. Climate change, poor land management and abandoned countryside created an explosive combination, we went

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Portugal, in the line of fire

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A hillside in northern Portugal, once covered in a blanket of green is now a blackened landscape.

For the locals the problem is no one cares about the forest except when it’s on fire.

In 2017, wildfires in Portugal burnt up to 560,000 hectares of forest, that represents 60% of Europe’s total, for a country that makes up just over 2% of its landmass.

And this year, the fires were the deadliest in the country’s history, claiming more than 100 lives.

In Pedrógão Grande we headed towards the N236-1, re-named by local media as ‘The saddest street in Portugal.’ after June’s wildfires.

Nádia Piazza, (Association of Fire Victims of Pedrógão Grande) lost her 5-year-old son and ex-husband in the tragedy.

“The whole family was in two cars, they went to die 200 metres from here. You can see that all this new tarmac hides the patchwork that was left by the burnt cars. They died just here…19 people died in this stretch of road, 47 in total, but 19 just here…This is all new, they covered it, they’re ashamed.”

Overall 64 people died in June’s wildfires leading to much soul-searching.

An independent investigation showed the fire was caused by a lightning strike, but also found the emergency response was lacking.

Beyond this, insufficient forest management, abandoned rural areas along with climate change create an explosive combination.

For some, the prevalence of non-native Eucalyptus trees with its highly combustible oil are also to blame.

Locals refer to it as the ‘fire tree’.

Father Cruz said he knew a massive fire was coming.

“As the river’s bends, there’s a eucalyptus plantation belonging to a cellulose company. They say that their plantation doesn’t burn, but that’s not exactly true when the fire is very strong. As you can see, their trees have burnt. Of course, there’s forest management, they plough, they try to reduce the flammable material but, when the fire is really strong, this is not enough.”

He believes that having home-made firefighting equipment is essential in these remote regions.

Fire fighting experts argue the best way to fight fire is with fire. Using controlled burns, and steering fires away from communities can help avoid tragedies like Pedrógão.

In October, new fires brought fresh misery to the forests and their communities.

Thousands of fires erupted across Northern Portugal, killing 45 people.

Firefighter chief Manuel Marques was on the front line of the inferno.

“It was impressive, a fire that spread so quickly, so much wind. We were incapable of putting out the flames… If only you could see it, it was so scary; As I said, I’ve been a firefighter for 40 years and I’ve never seen anything like it, a fire of this size, it was terrible, we are so sad that we couldn’t do anything to stop it, it was bad, so bad.”

October’s fires were so savage in part due to winds from Hurricane Ophelia. Winds over 100km/hour fanned the flames in Portugal, combined with a summer heatwave called ‘Lucifer’, which left the countryside tinder dry.

Scientists at World Weather Attribution found the heatwave temperatures were made at least ten times more likely due to climate change.

Human activity is the recurring theme in deadly forest fires, this is also seen in Portugal’s wood industry, which relies on eucalyptus for the paper and pulp sector.

It takes less than half the time to harvest native species such as oak and pine. After a fire many smaller businesses switch to eucalyptus hoping the shorter production cycle will help to recoup losses before the next fire.

Approximately 3% of forest lands are state-owned. Much of the remaining woods are partitioned up into smaller slices owned by people living far away.

Fire analyst Emmanuel Oliveira explains how the relationship between humans and forests creates a vicious cycle.

“What we are looking at is the result of decades of abandonment and ‘degradation’ of this agricultural space, so it gives way for this vegetation to grow and become what we call ‘forest fuel’, and so if a fire comes it eats up the whole area.”

He says the solution lies in giving the green spaces an economic value.

If nothing changes, he fears the worst.

“Next year, it depends on the weather… the scenario isn’t very promising, the climate situation is not really good news, so it will depend on the day-to-day weather. There’s a lot of abandoned areas, areas that we don’t profit from, we don’t take care of or capitalize on this rural space; so we will carry on having forest fires just like happened this year.”

The threat of another deadly fire and the loss of her family has spurred Nadia into action. She heads a victims association.

“One hundred people had to die and we had to create an association for a voiceless community to have our voices heard; now the community has a small voice to show how shameful it is; this is why it is so important for us to tell Europe, because this country is not able to protect its own people so we have to be heard elsewhere.”

The relationship between humans and fire will continue to be a complicated affair, which requires action at local, national and even international levels to help prevent loss of life, and protect rural communities.

But both humans and trees share a point in common, their ability to adapt and survive in the line of fire.