PORTUGAL – Alerta was born in 2013, beginning as a simple Facebook page where people posted comments on fires in their area such as “I can see smoke”, “there is a helicopter or the fire engine has just gone by”. Concerned residents shared information enabling prior warning to be given to people living in the path of deadly wildfires, particularly useful for those for whom Portuguese was not a first language.
As Alerta grew in membership and experience, the role of the Facebook page began to evolve into something more structured and useful. We discovered the ANEPC page which gives all the current information on, amongst other things, wildfires across Portugal. There are other similar websites, however this is the most reliable, factual and up to date page. Now volunteers check for fire alerts every day between the hours of 8am until 10pm during the peak fire season. Our team posts alerts and tracks the progress of fires, enabling advanced warning to be given but also providing reassurance for concerned members. The page also provides a moderated forum for people to share local knowledge, relieving pressure on the phone lines to the emergency services and helping to prevent onlookers from gathering in unsafe areas.
Until 2017 I ran the page single-handedly but, when the number of members increased, I realised I needed assistance. After roping in a couple of friends and new volunteers, the Alerta page, as we know it today, was launched.
Having seen the bombeiros working at close quarters during the fire of 2017 in Monchique, we identified ways to help them by collecting and delivering items such as food snacks, water and toiletries thus keeping them supplied on a daily basis.
After 2017, we realised that we needed to formally become a charitable association, and the Associação para Alerta de incêndio Florestal /Forest fire Alert was born.
We now fundraise all year round so that during the summer we can deliver regular supplies of bottled water and energy bars to stock the “fire boxes” the bombeiros carry on every engine, with 24hrs worth of snack food. In the event of a large fire, we supplement the food provided by the government for the emergency teams and even purchase forest fire uniforms to help to replace those burnt and damaged. As our contacts have become increasingly widespread we have been able to source decommissioned equipment from the UK, including infrared cameras, breathing apparatus kits, urban uniforms and boots to name a few. In addition we provide a hamper to every station on Christmas Eve for those working over the festive period. We now also liaise with other organisations, such as afpop and were able to support their highly successful ‘shock’ appeal to buy defibrillators.
In 2018 the Algarve was severely tested, as were the bombeiros and Alerta. On 3 August at 1.32pm a fire started in the hills behind Monchique that would burn for 10 days and travel down to and beyond Silves. At its height there were 1,492 personnel involved, all of whom needed to be supplied with essentials. Again we enlisted our trusted volunteers from all over the Algarve. Collection points old and new were pressed into service and restaurants and supermarkets provided snacks and cooked food. Our volunteers would ring the bombeiros every morning, for the latest shopping list and have it all at Silves for lunchtime.
To keep energy levels up we provided cooked chickens and other meats as well as hand held food, such as energy bars and biscuits. Keeping the brave firefighters hydrated was obviously vitally important so there was an almost inexhaustible need for bottled water and energy drinks, which were provided in specially purchased cool boxes. We also bought medical supplies, on a large scale, including burn creams, pain killers, Ibuprofen creams and tablets, eye wash, dressings, bandages, and even ladies sanitary products. As some of the bombeiros, particularly those from further afield, had been wearing the same clothes for days, we also supplied T shirts and underwear.
As the fire grew and began to impact a range of properties, including smallholdings and animal rescue centres, we launched the animal rescue groups. Our brave volunteers were prepared to put themselves into danger to rescue a variety of animals, from cats and dogs to horses and donkeys. We also created another branch of Alerta to liaise between the people who were being evacuated and those offering accommodation, meaning that many otherwise homeless families had a bed for the night. These are just a few of the amazing volunteers who are prepared to drop everything and help when the fires start.
None of this would be possible without charitable donations, however. Normally our fundraising team would be working hard throughout the year with events such as golf days, wine tasting evenings, coffee mornings, running the Lisbon marathon, sponsored walks and auctions. We are also lucky to have the support of Roosters and the Charity Warehouse and Barn in Messines.
This year, however, things have been a little different for all of us and many of our normal fundraising events, such as organising the car parking for the Silves Medieval festival, have been cancelled. In spite of this, we have still been able to purchase 170 uniforms and over €2,000 worth of PPE. We have also been able to use our contacts in the UK to secure decommissioned uniforms and equipment such as breathing apparatus, infrared cameras and 57 forest fire uniforms at €350 each have also been purchased. This is largely due to online events and sponsorship.
Alerta has an amazing team from a wide variety of backgrounds, all with different skills and facilities, but we are always looking for new volunteers, both for our Facebook information page as well as fundraising and the delivering of supplies.
Currently we have a team of around 20 people who provide information on wildfires to our concerned members between May and October. They man the site from 8am to 10pm every day, split into 2 hourly shifts. New helpers are always welcome and all that is needed is a laptop or iPad and a reliable internet connection. Full training is given and there is a great team on hand for support and advice.
In addition to our Facebook fire watch team we are always pleased to hear from people who can provide practical support in any form, including those with access to land to house evacuated livestock and empty properties for short term emergency accommodation.