By Goncalo Almeida
OLIVEIRA DO HOSPITAL, Portugal (Reuters) - After devastating wildfires swept across Portugal's interior in 2017, killing at least 116 people, authorities are pinning their hopes on youngsters to tackle future catastrophes and protect isolated populations.gi
Last year's fires were the worst natural disaster in Portugal's modern history, prompting efforts to step up fire prevention measures and increase preparedness by firefighters.
Even if there were no deadly fires this year, gradually rising summer temperatures due to global warming means fires are likely to strike more frequently, and given ageing populations in some areas, the country needs to enlist the young.
Joao Santos, 19, started training six years ago at a firefighting school in Oliveira do Hospital, a city in the central district of Coimbra. He became a volunteer firefighter in 2017 as soon as he was old enough at 18.
"I have never seen anything like it," he said of last year's fires, adding that the school is essential to ensuring the future of firefighting in Portugal.
Spread across the country at fire stations, the schools aim to raise awareness among children and young people, aged between five and 17, about the essential role fire prevention can play in avoiding wildfires. They can volunteer as firefighters when they turn 18.
There are seven other schools enlisting young firefighters in the Coimbra district, the worst hit area in last year's fires.
"Every year we have students from this school who join the fire force," said Paulo Rocha, a firefighter from Oliveira do Hospital's fire brigade and the city's school coordinator. "That's good for us because we urgently need more people since we are in the interior of the country," he told Reuters.
Data from the European Union shows Portugal is one of the worst hit by fires every year in the EU.
One of the root causes of Portugal's frequent fires is the abandonment of the interior and an aging population. That's why more young people need to become firefighters, Rocha said.
"We don't have anything here," Rocha said. "We need people because access to health services is far away and we need someone who can rescue the growing numbers of elderly people."
Students learn how to use fire escape ladders and fire hoses, as well as first aid techniques.
"Battling fires helps people have better lives," said eight-year-old Madalena Borges, one of 70 students taking part in training classes in Oliveira do Hospital every two weeks. "I want to be a firefighter because I want to save lives."
(Reporting by Goncalo Almeida; Writing by Catarina Demony; Editing by Axel Bugge and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)