NEWS

A year of wildfires and pointing fingers in Portugal

Today in Portugal, citizens will enter a three day period of national mourning as wildfires continue to ravage the country. The fires had claimed the lives of 36 people as of Tuesday morning, including a one month old infant. An additional 56 people have been injured, 16 of whom are in critical condition.

The wildfires ignited amidst dry conditions, fueled by winds from Hurricane Ophelia, which is now pummeling Ireland’s coast. According to authorities, arson might have also played a role in the outbreak of some of the around 500 different fires simultaneously burning in Portugal. On Monday, more than 5,300 firefighters battled the fires using 1,600 vehicles. Aircraft equipment with the capacity to drop water on the blaze is not in use in certain areas, as low clouds and heavy smoke severely limit visibility. The number of fires has forced a state of emergency upon nearly half of the country’s landmass, the entire region north of the Tajo River.

A volunteer uses a water hose to fight a wildfire raging near houses in the outskirts of Obidos, Portugal, in the early hours of Monday, Oct. 16 2017.  (AP Photo/Armando Franca)
A volunteer uses a water hose to fight a wildfire raging near houses in the outskirts of Obidos, Portugal, in the early hours of Monday, Oct. 16 2017. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

An interesting phenomenon has taken over Portugal’s agriculture, both resulting from and catalyzing these fires. Portugal’s forestry industry, established by a dictator in the first half of the twentieth century, is ground zero for most of these fires now. The region has suffered so much that some landowners are switching to eucalyptus, which requires about half the time to grow as pine. This has been a popular choice, sustaining the paper market, which accounts for 10% of Portuguese exports. Eucalyptus plants also happen to contain an extremely flammable sap that fuels fires, and its bark flies off when burnt. The bark alone has been shown to start fires 100 yards from the original tree. The area of planted eucalyptus has grown by more than 100% of its 1980s mass, and forest fires like those burning this year have been fueled by this growth. While the paper industry disputes claims that mismanagement of forest land now occupied by eucalyptus has contributed to the worsening of fires, the industry is only responsible for about 20% of Portugal’s forest land. The other 80% is owned by private individuals, who have been criticized for not practicing fuel management.

The country has experienced a great deal of fire-related tragedy this year, after June fires killed 64 people. Of these 64 deaths, 47 occurred on a single road as people fled in their cars, only to be met by the same flames they were fleeing. Survivors spoke out following the tragedy, saying authorities sent people down the road as an alternative to a nearby route that had been closed. According to The Guardian, survivor Maria de Fatima told Agence France Presse (AFP), “When we arrived at the IC8, they told us we couldn’t pass and directed us towards the N236. We thought that the road was safe but it wasn’t.” Last week, results from an independent investigation found that authorities had failed to evacuate residents on time.

Simultaneously, the region of Galicia in northwest Spain was battling fires of its own. The Prime Minister of Spain announced Monday that the fires in Galicia were also the work of arsonists, and urged authorities to track down the culprits. The region president of Galicia called the arson “terrorist acts” on Monday. Several people have been connected to the arson, and three people have died as of Tuesday afternoon.

Sources:

Portugal fires: Three days of national mourning for wildfire victims – BBC News

Hurricane Ophelia: Schools closed and thousands without power – BBC News

Portugal and Spain wildfires kill at least 39 people – CNN

One-month-old baby among at least 32 killed in Portugal and Spain fires – The Guardian

Portugal Forest Fires Worsen, Fed by Poor Choices and Inaction – The New York Times

Reeling from its deadliest forest fire, Portugal finds a villain: eucalyptus trees – Los Angeles Times

Portugal’s prime minister calls on emergency services to explain wildfire response – The Guardian

Wildfires Kill 32 in Portugal, 4 in Spain – Financial Tribune

Dozens die in Portugal and Spain wildfires – BBC News