Portugal Forest Fires Worsen, Fed by Poor Choices and Inaction


 
12 August 2017

published by https://www.nytimes.com


Portugal - OLEIROS, Portugal — When Portugal’s deadliest wildfire killed more than 60 people in June not far from the hamlet where Daniel Muralha lives, it was just the pensioner’s latest brush with death.

In 2003, Mr. Muralha, 77, narrowly survived a huge forest fire that engulfed his house. In 2015, a fire destroyed his field. And this July, he watched anxiously as fire burned the trees above his property.

“The fires are getting worse and worse, which means this place is going to become a desert,” he said. “I’m too old to move elsewhere, but more people, of course, decide to leave after every fire.”

What he describes is an increasingly urgent problem for his country. Hotter, drier summers are setting off more forest fires, which are accelerating a decades-old migration from rural areas, leaving lands untended. That, in turn, helps fuel new and more intense fires that spread and burn even faster.

The deadly spiral, forestry experts and environmentalists say, has been worsened by political inaction, a history of poor land management and the prioritizing of firefighting over fire prevention, even in the face of more frequent tragedies.

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This summer, a searing heat wave has helped spawn major fires in the Balkans, parts of Italy and Spain, and southern France and Corsica, as a changing climate affects countries across Southern Europe.

But Portugal has become a particularly stark case of what the future may hold if changes to land, climate and economies go mismanaged.

The deaths in June provoked a fresh round of soul-searching and spurred an investigation, still continuing, into how and why the wildfire engulfed Pedrógão Grande, about 10 miles from where Mr. Muralha lives, close to Oleiros.

Oleiros and its environs are a prime example of the changes to the landscape that have rendered Portugal ever more vulnerable to fire.

The area is a hub for the country’s wood industry. The hamlet where Mr. Muralha lives has just 12 residents, down from about 180 in the 1960s, he said.

He and his neighbors say they are too old to cut down the brush that fuels forest fires and cannot afford to pay someone to clear it. “Nobody really cares about the forest, except when it’s really on fire,” said Mr. Muralha, who lives mostly on a monthly disability pension of 200 euros, about $235.

This central region has been transformed since the 15th century, when native oaks were used to build caravels, the oceangoing ships that helped turn Portugal into a colonial empire, stretching from Brazil to Angola to Macao.

Last century, the dictatorship under António de Oliveira Salazar reshaped the country’s economy. Starting in the 1930s, despite protests from farmers, it planted trees in the north and central parts of the country, where the forest fires are now concentrated, to develop a wood industry.

“Our forest area grew very quickly, but as an industrial forest that was meant to produce timber and paper for exports rather than be well integrated into rural communities,” said José Miguel Pereira, a professor at the school of agriculture at the University of Lisbon.

Many wood mills have since closed, but the industry continues to dominate life in places like Oleiros.

Even so, Portugal’s wood industry no longer relies on native species like oak and pine. Instead, it is increasingly built on eucalyptus, which feeds a pulp and paper sector that makes up 10 percent of Portuguese exports. The area of eucalyptus planting has more than doubled since the 1980s.

Eucalyptus can be harvested in half the time needed for pine. And unlike other species, “you have absolutely no need for people on the ground” to supervise its growth, said João Camargo, an environmental engineer.

The tree, however, contains a highly flammable oil that helps fires erupt more easily, spread and intensify.

Yet after every fire, more landowners switch to eucalyptus, hoping that a shorter production cycle can allow them to recoup their losses faster and to harvest their trees before the next fire erupts.

It is an accelerating sequence that has turned Portugal “from a pretty diverse forest into a big eucalyptus monoculture,” Mr. Camargo said.

The paper industry disagrees and argues that the expansion of eucalyptus is not the issue — its mismanagement is.

“The fire problem is not rooted in the eucalyptus myth,” said Tiago Oliveira, who is in charge of innovation and forest development at Navigator, Portugal’s largest paper company.

The pulp and paper industry manages only 20 percent of the eucalyptus in Portugal, under strict international certification standards, he noted.

The problem comes from the remaining 80 percent, “mostly owned by small private landowners typically not committed to fuel-management practices,” Mr. Oliveira said.

The authorities have shown little interest in supervising Portugal’s forests, in part because only 3 percent of them are in state hands, by far the lowest level of public forest ownership in the European Union, Mr. Camargo said.

Instead, Portugal’s forests keep getting fragmented into smaller parcels, often inherited by people who no longer live anywhere near the land.

About a fifth of Portugal’s territory is now without any identified ownership. In the age of satellite imagery, Mr. Oliveira said, it was “inexcusable” that the country could not accurately map who owns the land.

Ricardo Alexandre Vaz Alves, an officer in Portugal’s environmental police department, said landowners often preferred to risk a fine rather than clear their forest, especially knowing that the police struggle to identify owners.

The Socialist government has tried to use the Pedrógão fire to revive changes to forestry laws. But a proposal to allow the state to take over forest land whose owners cannot be identified has run into significant resistance.

Such legislative paralysis has long defined Portugal’s response, or lack of it, to a fire crisis that increasingly costs the country both lives and money.

“Objectively, there is a big waste of public money in the fight against fires and almost nothing spent on prevention,” said Maria José Morgado, a Portuguese public prosecutor.

The disconnect is blamed for the repetition of calamity.

In 2003, a fire around Oleiros burned down about 50,000 acres of forest — more than one-third of the municipality’s surface area — killing two people.

After the tragedy, José Manuel Durão Barroso, Portugal’s prime minister at the time, and other politicians visited Oleiros.

“Every politician made loads of promises to make everything better, start from scratch and remodel the forest, but then almost nothing at all happened,” said José Santos Marques, the mayor of Oleiros for 28 years.

The most recent fire could have been worse, he said, were it not for an abrupt drop in wind and temperature.

“We luckily escaped another major tragedy in July, but the situation of our forest is a lot worse and unmanaged than in 2003,” he said. “Instead of improving anything, it seems we’re only really waiting for the next fire.”

Successive governments in Lisbon, he said, have simply passed responsibility for managing the forest to local authorities whose budgets are already overstretched.

Others, too, blamed politicians who “destroyed the public system of forest management to focus instead on fighting fires,” said Felismino Serra, a forest engineer and former professional firefighter.

“We now have fires that burn in two days what they burned in two weeks before, because neglect and abandonment mean there is a lot more fuel in the forest,” he said.

The reason? “If you invest in the forest, you get results in 20 years, but politicians need quick and visible results — and there’s nothing more visible than firefighting,” he argued.

After Portugal emerged from dictatorship in the 1970s, joining the volunteer fire brigades became a badge of honor in Portugal’s democratic society.

“Everybody in Portugal has a cousin who is a firefighter hero,” said João Gama, a lawyer and former secretary of state for local government. “No politician wants to even start the discussion about a system of volunteers that is really part of our society’s culture.”

Today more than 25,000 volunteers operate alongside about 5,000 professional firefighters in Portugal.

The system of volunteers has been affected by the migration from rural to urban areas, meaning young volunteers often need to travel long distances to reach a forest fire, which occurred with the tragedy at Pedrógão in June.

“In the U.S., it’s forbidden for a firefighter to enter an unknown environment, but this now often happens here,” said Emanuel Oliveira, a fire risk consultant and former firefighter.

Jaime Marta Soares, the president of Portugal’s league of firefighters, defended the know-how of the volunteers, and said that if anything were to blame for inadequate responses, it was failures of public administration.

In particular, he pointed to the switch to an emergency communications system, known as Siresp, in 2006.

In Pedrógão, many died in their cars trying to escape the flames. Siresp’s breakdown is part of the investigation into the tragedy, to determine why the police and emergency services didn’t steer drivers away from danger.

Siresp “was never prepared to handle a large number of users at the same time,” Mr. Marta Soares said. “That’s incompetence and irresponsibility.”