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Posted by portugalpress on August 09, 2018

As we went to press on Wednesday, Monchique hillside lay black and steaming. Hot spots are everywhere as exhausted firefighters try to take as much advantage as possible of a lull in the strong north wind. Six days of raging inferno have made inroads on the neighbouring boroughs of Silves and Portimão. The Algarve’s green lung is reduced, yet again, to dust and ashes.

It is far too early to establish how many hectares have been devastated, how many family businesses have been wrecked, how many people have no roof over their heads now, or whether anyone ‘left behind’ (either by mistake or design) has died.

But what is as clear as the sound and sight of firefighters racing to try and save the day is that this latest tragedy was caused by the proliferation of eucalyptus.

Say critics, it means nothing that no new plantations are authorised. The damage is already done: the country has far too many of the trees that literally explode at the first whiff of fire, powering flames hundreds of metres in every direction.

This latest fire started “in an explosive way” on Friday afternoon. That, in itself, says everything people need to know: it started in a dense area of eucalyptus on the north side of the mountain. The die was cast.

By the fourth day, when combat power had been beefed from the original first response teams of 200 fighters, 63 vehicles and nine planes and helicopters to well over 1,000 firefighters, 300 vehicles and 13 planes and helicopters – the fires had started to travel south and authorities were under fire.

Why was this fight taking so long?

International media ran the habitual ‘summer disaster’ stories, fanned by the fact that hundreds of tourists had to be evacuated from the hill’s luxury Macdonald Monchique Resort & Spa.

Even former British prime minister David Cameron was said to be caught up in the disaster, on a family holiday in a secluded villa somewhere on Picota.

“Was the Algarve safe for people to take holidays?” came the queries.

But no-one officially talked of the “scandal of eucalyptus” that has turned huge swathes of this country into death traps.

Victims have started querying, however, the sense behind the enforced garden and land ‘culls’ which saw thousands of people spending small fortunes on making sure they complied with State directives.

“We did everything, everything, everything that we should have done,” former professional footballer Hélio Guerreiro told Diário de Notícias the night after flames “devoured part of his house and all the cork oaks and medronho trees that guarantee the family’s income”.

“We cleaned all our land in May. We spent thousands on that joke. The roads here also were cleared. There is masses of water up here. We did everything we were told, and we still lost everything.”

Shattered Monchique mayor Rui André is almost certain to come out with all guns blazing once the fire has been fully brought under control.

Wednesday was looking likely to be that day, but national command fronted by the familiar face of Patrícia Gaspar (the Civil Protection chief who gave all the desperate bulletins during the deadly fires of 2017), was stressing that it was “still a very complex situation”.

Winds were expected to increase in strength through the day. Nothing was certain, though for the first time in six days, areas of the Algarve were enjoying blue skies, thus hopes were high.

But once the firefighting is over, the fury will start – not simply over the way this disaster was managed, but over how much ‘big business’ has been allowed to mess with public safety.

As Rui André admitted to reporters on day four: “We have a problem that a lot of people have: half our forest is eucalyptus.”

In 2003, the mountainside suffered a similar conflagration: 41,000 hectares devastated over 11 days of heartbreak.

Survivors of the 2003 blazes say this time round flames came upon them “so much faster”.

The speed almost certainly has a direct correlation with the make-up of the landscape: inflammable eucalyptus that has spread unchecked for decades.

Said one of the various ‘forestry experts’ interviewed during the height of the drama: “You cannot fix in a year decades of forestry abandonment. The countryside has layers and layers of combustible material, it’s full of eucalyptus, temperatures are reaching new highs all the time and humidity levels are frighteningly low.”

The future for the Algarve’s ‘green lung’ looks about as perilous as that of a Stage 4 cancer patient. We will have to wait for the smoke to die down to see if authorities, finally, get to grips with an environmentally-sound programme of reforestation, or whether pressure from the pulp and paper industry will perpetuate the untenable status-quo.

31 injured, one seriously

By Wednesday, official figures were that 31 people have been injured, one – a 72-year-old woman – seriously.

Many of the injuries involve superficial burns, smoke inhalation and ‘sheer exhaustion’.

Firefighters, as always, have been the unsung heroes of this disaster. Returning to fire stations after gruelling shifts and literally vomiting on the tarmac from lungfulls of soot and ash.

Locals ferrying much-needed supplies to various agreed points have said how the sight of these brave warriors coming in to rest has been truly humbling.