Portugal:Portugal Braces for Summer Forest Fire Season
Publishedby Tehran Times, 17 June 2003
LISBON — As temperatures begin to rise across Portugal, the nation’s firefighters are preparing for the start of the summer forest fire season which each year leaves behind thousands of hectares (acres) of charred landscape.
“The number of fires in Portugal each year is very dramatic, it is far worse than in other European countries with similar warm climates” said Helder Spinola, the president of Quercus, Portugal’s largest environmental defence group.
There were some 25,000 forest or brush fires last year in Portugal which burned almost 120,000 hectares (296,400 acres) of land, according to forest service figures, AFP reported. The amount of land burned each year has increased steadily over the past two decades. The area of forest lost to flames rose from an average of some 55,000 hectares a year between 1980 and 1984 to just over 100,000 hectares a year between 1995 and 1999.
Portugal lost 16 percent of its forest land in fires during the 1990s. During this same period Greece and Spain, which also experience long dry summers, lost six percent of their forests to flames while Italy and France lost two percent. The result is that while the total area covered by forests in Europe has grown by 0.1 percent a year, in Portugal it has declined by 1.5 percent, a rate of decline that is larger than that recorded in Brazil’s Amazon rain forest.
Officials estimate that less than 10 percent of all fires are caused by natural causes. Firefighters blame the vast majority of blazes on either negligence on the part of campers and farmers or arson. In many cases firefighters are ill-prepared to battle the fires, so once a blaze gets started it can often take a long while to put out.
Only five percent of Portugal’s 40,000 firefighters have had any training on how to combat forest fires. Equipment, including fire trucks, is lacking in many regions in the north of the country, where most fires occur. The government has sought to improve the ability of firefighters to battle blazes this year by boosting funding for the purchase of new equipment and by putting more firefighters on duty at forests over the summer months.
“This year we will work to fight fires in a well-planned and programmed fashion,” said Interior Minister Antonio Figueiredo Lopes when he announced the government’s new measures at the end of May. The interior ministry will spend 32 million euros (38 million dollars) this year to fight forest fires, three million more than last year. Part of the money will be used to buy 51 new fire trucks.
The extra funds are also being used to pay for the start of summer patrols of forests two weeks earlier than normal. Some 3,500 firefighters have already been stationed in forests across the country. But critics charge that too much focus is put on fighting fires once they have started and not enough is being done to prevent them from erupting in the first place. “It is a cyclical error. Every summer a series of measures to fight fires are announced but prevention is forgotten,” Spinola told AFP. “This is a failed strategy as the huge areas that are burned down each year prove.”
Spinola said public education campaigns which teach campers and farmers what precautions to take when handling outdoor fires are needed as is a campaign to clear forests of overgrown brushes which can easily ignite. Environmentalists argue the government also needs to crack down harder on arsonists. Of the 164 largest fires which flared last year, firefighters believe 30 percent were started on purpose. Yet the 185 trials for arson held between 1997 and 2002 resulted in jail sentences in only four cases.