A wildfire in central Portugal, which started Saturday June 17, has killed at least 62 people and injured dozens more, including eight firefighters. Some areas were completely encapsulated by fire, essentially trapping people in the deadly blaze and making it difficult or impossible to escape. On Friday, prior to the fire, authorities had issued wildfire alerts due to “high temperatures, low humidity, and strong winds”. Portugal has been in the middle of a heat wave, with temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit for multiple days.
Officials determined that the fire was started by a lightning strike during a ‘dry thunderstorm’, where the rain evaporates before it hits the ground due to high temperatures.
Around 1,600 firefighters battled the fire, assisted by police and military units. Additional help, which included water-dropping planes from Spain, France, and Italy, arrived in Portugal to help fight the fire. However, the smoke from the fire complicated the use of airpower. The fire badly damaged communications towers and cables, though the Portuguese Prime Minister said this did not impact the firefighting efforts.
As Portugal manages the fire and casualties, they have requested that people stop sending supplies, as the large amount of food, water, and medical equipment is already more than the teams on the ground can handle. Many EU countries have also offered support.
In March, the Portuguese government announced a set of wildfire mitigation measures, not all of which have entered into force yet. This included restrictions on eucalyptus plantations, which are one of the country’s most profitable species but are also highly flammable. Following the outbreak, Portugal’s leading environmental lobby, Quercus, criticized the emergency as being the product of bad management and political decisions, and rebuked the government for planting large amounts of eucalyptus.
Emergency services have also been criticized following the fire, for not closing a road that 47 of the deaths occurred along. Residents also report that they were left on their own for hours while their homes burned. Furthermore, poor forestry planning and the depopulation of rural villages contributed to many brush areas being unmanaged, and ultimately contributing as fuel to the forest fire.
Sources and Further Reading:
Portugal Fires Kill More Than 60, Including Drivers Trapped in Cars – The New York Times