Seventh fire-fighter dies as it emerges only a handful of convicted arsonists are jailed

Seventh fire-fighter dies as it emerges only a handful of convicted arsonists are jailed

12 September 2013

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Portugal — Between 2007 and 2011 Portuguese courts issued 280 convictions for the crime of forest fires, according to figures from the Ministry of Justice, but half of those convictions resulted in suspended prison sentences and only six percent of convicted arsonists sentenced during that period actually served any time behind bars.

These are the most recent figures available from the Ministry of Justice and they show that only a handful of criminals found guilty of starting forest fires, actually serve prison sentences.

This news comes as another fire-fighter lost their life last week; the seventh this season, as a result of tackling forest fires.

Rui Almeida, head of the PJ Permanente Help and Support group, which is dedicated to forest fires, believes this rise in detentions this year is due to a boost in investigative resources as well as a rise in the number of fires started.

“During the second half of August and the first half of September, given the number of occurrences, the national director has given instructions for the teams to be reinforced”, he said.

Twenty-five suspects were detained by the GNR police force.

Meanwhile, a 51-year-old fire-fighter died last Thursday (5 September) in Coimbra’s university hospital with burns to 19% of his body.

His death brings the number of those who have died as a result of tackling forest fires this year to seven.

Fernando Manuel Reis, a member of the volunteer force in Valença since 1987, was seriously injured on 29 August while fighting a fire in that same borough in northern Portugal. He was transferred to Coimbra because of the severity of the burns to his head, arms and torso – 19% of his body in all.

This has been one of the worst forest fire seasons in years, with 7,000 blazes recorded in August alone, while the average number of fire fighters in action around the country on any given day during that month was more than 10,000.

Portugal’s home affairs minister, Miguel Macedo, on Thursday told journalists that conditions in August had been “absolutely comparable” to the terrible years of 2003 and 2004, when fire fighters were forced to work in extreme adverse conditions.

According to the information from the Ministry of Justice of the 280 convictions only 233 have clear sentences.

Of those, only fourteen defendants were sent to jail. Almost half of the overall total, 113 people, avoided jail by being handed a suspended sentence; in many cases on the condition of checking in regularly at a local police station or accepting psychological help.

Fines were issued in 35 percent of the cases and prison cells were swapped for pecuniary instalments in 5.6 percent of cases.

So far this year the PJ police have detained 59 people on suspicion of starting a forest fire, 36 of whom were held in police custody.

This time last year the PJ had detained 13 fewer fire-starters and only 16 people were held in custody.

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