Portugal wildfires: Why are they so deadly?

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Image caption,
Critics say the agencies responsible for prevention, detection and emergency response to fires suffer a lack of co-ordination

"A level of human tragedy that we have never seen before."

That's how Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa described a huge forest fire that has swept through the centre of the country, leaving at least 64 people dead since Saturday.

Wildfires are an annual menace in Portugal. More broke out there between 1993 and 2013 than in Spain, France, Italy or Greece, reported the European Environment Agency last year, despite the country's relatively small geographical size.

Given that, was this year's tragedy preventable? Could Portugal have done anything more to save lives and minimise the damage?

Just what makes Portugal such a tinderbox?

Climate and terrain

Portugal, on Europe's south-western edge, is a warm country fanned by strong winds off the Atlantic.

Scientists say climate change has had an impact, extending the "wildfire season" from two to five months. This year, the summer has got off to a hot start, with temperatures already exceeding 40C in areas, and this comes after a dry, warm spring.

History of forest ownership and management

Portugal is one of the most heavily forested countries in Europe, but the vast majority of woodland - 85%, according to the World Forest Institute - is privately owned. Forest ownership is highly fragmented, with privately owned plots averaging only five hectares (12.7 acres).

Lack of management of the forest is a key part of Portugal's problem. As rural populations have dwindled, many of these privately owned plots have been neglected, with brush and detritus accumulating - which become fuel for the flames when a fire breaks out.

Monocultural forests

Much of the area in flames is dominated by eucalyptus, an Australian species introduced to Europe in the 18th Century but which really boomed in Portugal with the rise of paper industries in the mid-20th Century.

It is one of the most profitable trees, but ecologists say eucalyptus sucks up rare groundwater and is bad for native plant and animal life.

The sap-rich tree that now covers large parts of central and northern Portugal is also highly flammable.

Eucalyptus lined route N-236, where 47 people died in their cars while trying to flee.

Ineffective fire prevention strategy

The government's forest fire strategy - or lack of one - has come in for particular criticism in the local media.

"What failed on Saturday? Everything, as it has done for decades" was the headline on one analysis on the Publico news site. It says the three prongs of the strategy - prevention, surveillance and detection, and response - are parcelled out among unco-ordinated agencies which blame each other when things go wrong.

This it traces back to the government's failure to implement fully a forest fire protection plan proposed more than 10 years ago. That may have been compounded by Portugal's debt crisis, which precipitated a €78bn (then £68bn; $110bn) international bailout contingent on a programme of cuts and privatisation.

Image source, Reuters

The current emphasis is on the emergency response to outbreaks of fire, experts told the paper, rather than the longer-term territorial management that would lower risk and minimise the spread of the flames.

The newspaper points to the lack of "safety lanes" creating a break between dwellings and forest that would enable firefighters to focus on fighting fires rather than evacuating people. Houses could be built with safe rooms where people could take shelter if forest fires drew near.

Other observers have also criticised the latitude given to the forestry companies.

"The plantations are allowed to plant up to the edge of the road, which is a crime, because if a tree falls over over it blocks the road and that's the end for everyone," Caleb Cluff, an Australian journalist who witnessed the fire, told the BBC's 5 live radio station.

The emergency response

The government has vowed to examine communication and planning problems which could have contributed to the scale of the disaster.

Critics say the lack of a modernised warning system - for instance, an SMS text alert system or mobile phone alert apps - meant local people were not fully informed and began acting on instinct.

Communication problems even extended to the emergency services, which found themselves unable to communicate after the emergency network phone masts burned down.

Some firefighters also spoke of a lack of equipment.

"We've been forgotten here. We didn't have a single piece of aerial equipment," volunteer firefighter manager Baltazar Lopes told Euronews.

"Corpses have been on the ground for too long before being removed. After this catastrophe we must think seriously about and change the civil protection authorities."

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