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Afp

Why are Portugal's wildfires so deadly?

By AFP
media Experts say the firefighters need more training AFP/File

For the second time in four months, firefighters are struggling to contain a series of wildfires that are consuming thousands of acres across Portugal -- and killing scores of people trapped by the flames.

Here are some of the principal causes of the blazes and reasons they turn deadly so quickly, based on a report by 12 experts released last Thursday.

The report was commissioned by parlement after the huge fire that ravaged the Pedrogao Grande region in central Portugal in June, which left 64 dead.

- Ill-trained volunteers -

Most firefighters in Portugal are volunteers, meaning a fast-spreading fire can quickly overwhelm their efforts to contain it.

The report called for the creation of more professional brigades and a revamp of the national firefighter training institute, as well as improved coordination with the Portuguese army, which was found to be under-utilised during natural disasters.

- Communication breakdowns -

Telephone lines and antennas providing cellphone coverage are often damaged during the blazes, making it impossible for Portugal's various emergency services to communicate.

The experts found that their communications systems were also based on "worn-out technologies", but AFP reporters covering last June's inferno at times saw firefighters having to ask locals for directions.

Portugal's league of volunteer firefighters called Monday for "more modern and robust" equipment.

- Quick-burning eucalyptus -

Portugal's paper industry relies heavily on fast-growing eucalyptus, a highly flammable tree.

The experts advised planting more oak, chestnut and other trees instead of the eucalyptus and pines found across the country, and in July parlement approved a gradual reduction of eucalyptus cultivation.

- Reactive not proactive -

Portugal does not have enough meteorologists capable of giving sufficient warning in case of looming dry periods or unseasonal temperature spikes.

As a result, the government is often caught by surprise when multiple fires erupt: In June, which was much hotter than normal, it should have readied and reinforced firefighting teams -- something it normally does in July.

As a result, the experts found that in the current structure, teams are capable of reacting to wildfires, but cannot anticipate them.

- Civil protection snafus -

Portugal's civil protection agency (ANPC) has been slow to react and deploy the necessary equipment and personnel, the report found.

It said a water-carrying helicopter the ANPC said it had sent on the night the June blazes erupted had never even left the ground.

The experts also discovered questionable choices in terms of who was in charge at the agency, with many postings attributed to officials who lacked the requisite skills.

The report advised a more rigorous selection of "professionals having the required expertise and experience".

- Too close to nature -

Many Portuguese towns and villages are nestled in or next to forests, and both homeowners and municipalities often fail to fully assess the fire risks, neglecting for example to clear enough brush from around homes and buildings.

On Monday, Portugal's interior minister Constanca Urbano said many farmers and residents were continuing to burn dead leaves on their land despite the drought.

- Stubborn myth and no plan -

It's a common belief for many in Portugal that most wildfires are caused by arsonists, a myth the experts would like to see put to rest for good.

The June fire, they said, was caused by overloaded electricity networks and lightning.

But they also criticised Portugal's leaders for failing to develop a coherent strategy with each new government scrapping the previous efforts and starting over from scratch.

 
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