Current wildfires around Coimbra, Portugal, have claimed over 30 lives in a country still coming to terms with the loss of 64 people in wildfires this summer. It is a hard and painful truth that the impacts of wildfire are shared globally, as we here in the United States see official reports of 41 deaths in California from wildfires that continue to burn. Both tolls deserve our collective reflection on how we manage our landscapes and engage with our built environment.
António Patrão, Forest Engineer and Fire Prevention Specialist in Portugal, shared his thoughts on the current loss of life and the future of preparedness outreach in Portugal for this blog. His words help us to understand the scope of challenge, the impact of fire on the people of Portugal, and what can be done going forward by everyone.
“Portugal faced the most devastating wildfire season ever. Massive, very fast and severe wildfires destroyed lives, goods, landscapes, natural heritage and cultural values. It has been a firework on hell, under extreme dry [conditions], gigantic fuel accumulation, and unprepared communities. The perfect storm.
Since January until October , mostly in a few days of June and October, 106 people died. Hundreds were injured. Thousands of pets and livestock died. Thousands homes and industrial facilities and others were affected and destroyed. 500,000 ha [1,235,526 acres] were burned. This represent 50% of the total burned area in Europe. It should be noted that 90% of those 500,000 ha were caused only by 1% of the total ignitions.
We are now living a moment of uncertainty when wildfires easily become urban and industrial ones.
National wildfire management and civil protection systems collapsed. People, most of them old, were abandon to their luck, trapped in smoke and flames, alone and unprepared. All society is morally affected, in pain and tears. People are feeling hopeless, angry with fire, with the state and with the government, and questioning themselves. It will be hard to recover.
Wildfires in Portugal are now clearly being assumed as a social problem. They have human causes, they provoke human losses, and solutions are in human hands.
Solutions? Answers? Let’s go back to the basics on forest management and work close with people. Portugal needs to develop and implement community educational programs on fire. Community collaborative work on fire prevention and response represents one anchor to prepare people and to build resilient wildfire communities. This demands long term policies and outreach by multidisciplinary teams, home by home, street by street, village by village, and community by community. The road is hard but we should take the first step on Firewise.”