Wildfires in Portugal
18 June 2017, updated 26 June 2017
Updated: 23-06-2017 at 13:00.
A series of deadly wildfires erupted across central Portugal during the night of 17-18 June 2017, resulting in at least 64 deaths and at least 204 injured people. The majority of deaths took place in Pedrogao Grande when a fire swept across a road filled with evacuees. The most recent death was a firefighter who succumbed to his burn injuries in the hospital; 13 other firefighters were among the injured. Portuguese officials dispatched more than 1,700 firefighters nationwide to combat the blazes and Prime Minister Antonio Costa declared three days of national mourning.
The burning areas depicted by ESA's Proba V instrument, 20
June 2017. Source: ESA
Reports of the fires are given at the end of this page.
Statement from the GFMC
The fire situation in Portugal though tragic and extreme in terms of the loss of life, should not be entirely be considered unexpected given the overall wildfire hazard and the current meteorological fire danger situation. Several underlying contributing factors have created conditions for such events to occur. First, as one can see from images of the burned area, the vegetation cover is mostly of eucalyptus and pine tree plantations. Both eucalypts and some types of pine are exotic species that were introduced to the plantation industry in Portugal - and do not 'belong' in Portugal's landscape. These (reforestations) now cover previously cultivated lands, which for centuries had not been fire-prone because the plant biomass was intensively used by farmers and their livestock, as well as for heating and cooking.
In areas of fallow land which have not been reforested - from the standpoint of nature preservation, it has been favorable - but with regard to the fire danger, problems have arisen. Furthermore, abovementioned exotic species naturally spread and are colonizing former cultural landscapes very aggressively. One could almost refer to the eucalyptuses and some improvised pine species as "neophytes" - a problem that applies to practically all Euro-Mediterranean countries.
A second underlying factor is the urbanization of rural areas: While there are certainly few or no houses located in plantations, the cultural landscape on the whole is badly compromised. Where farmhouses were once scattered in an open landscape (and thus safe from fire), now weekend or vacation homes are nestled in overgrown areas - often aesthetically pleasing but simultaneously a deadly trap. Furthermore, this nomadic population of urbanites and foreign tourists who escape the hot cities into the countryside have little to no relation to the landscape (unlike e.g. farmers or forestry workers); among these recreational landscape users, the culture of "fire safety" is greatly diminished. The case of this fire reveals that such incidents usually come from the unexpected, be it a dry lightning (the suspected cause of this fire), arson or negligence.
While some have pointed to controlled burning as a "substitute" to reduce fire vulnerability and risk, the application in these exotic vegetation types is very limited. For instance, some eucalyptus species do not tolerate the controlled fire well, and the use of fire would threaten the plantation economy, since the raw material for pulp production would be tainted with charcoal residue. In pine plantations, however, fire is not applied because the industry or plantation owner generally does not invest in this additional measure for shorter-term plantation harvest cycles -- a very comparable parallel to a similarly traumatic fire season in Chile earlier this year, and in South Africa as well. Furthermore, the use of prescribed fire in a populated holiday landscape is as problematic as it is extremely risky - not to mention perceived as a practice which has little pre-history or traditional precedent in Portugal and the region.
For more information on the current situation see:
Recent news from the Portugal fires
Portugal: Portugal forest fire: 12 survive by hiding in a water tank (published by http://www.bbc.com 19 June 2017)
Europe / Portugal: EU channels extra support for Portugal to help with forest fires (published by http://reliefweb.int 18 June 2017)
Portugal: Gum trees fuel huge Portugal bushfire that has left at least 24 dead (published by http://thenewdaily.com.au 18 June 2017)
Portugal: Firefighter in Portugal detained for setting five forest fires (published by http://news.xinhuanet.com 17 June 2017)