It is somewhat ironical that the day following our seminar in Monchique, entitled “Protecting ourselves in the event of a forest fire”, a fire broke out in Serra de Monchique, to the north of Fóia. I hope that the knowledge gained at the seminar was useful to those who attended and live in that area.
The fire lasted 12 hours and required the mobilisation of 157 operational personnel, supported by 49 vehicles on the ground, plus six helicopters/aircraft.
The Critical Fire Period (Phase Charlie) has now commenced and will last to September 30. This means that special measures are in place to prevent forest fires due to exceptional meteorological conditions.
Specifically it means that during this period you cannot smoke or burn fires in forest areas; burn agricultural or forest debris; undertake grassland or renewal burning, or operate tractors, machines or heavy transport vehicles that do not have fire extinguishers, spark and ember retention systems or flame dampers in the exhaust pipes or chimneys. Of course, it goes without saying that you cannot throw lighted cigarettes from car windows as well!
It is important to note that the above applies regardless of the daily fire risk in your area. So if it was moderate (e.g. yellow), the above is still applicable.
Forest fire prevention is something that anyone living or visiting Portugal should be aware of. Why? Because each year, on average, wildfires destroy land equal to half the size of Luxembourg. Not only this, they also pose a risk to those who live in rural areas as well as property, not to mention the firemen and police who have to deal with such fires.
For the first six months of 2016, there has been a total of 1,796 fire occurrences, compared with 6,673 for the same period last year. This is the lowest for the same period for the last 20 years. The vast reduction is primarily due to a cooler and wetter period. Notwithstanding this, a total of 1538 hectares have been burned, which is quite a lot but not as much as in 2012, when in the first six months of the year some 36,439 hectares of land were burned, and that was before the devastating Tavira fires.
What fighting a fire means
The careless dropping of a cigarette can have drastic consequences. Someone’s negligence can put lives at risk, both those in the community as well as the brave firefighters. This is why forest fires are investigated by police and there are heavy fines or even imprisonment for those found to have caused fires either through negligence or deliberately.
Firefighting places many challenges on fire and civil protection commanders, who have to consider the safety of fire service personnel, the safety of the population, the protection of buildings and the protection of the environment. Can anyone imagine the logistical challenges involved? Of course the bigger the fire, or fires, the greater the demand.
In 2012, the Tavira fires and other simultaneous fires in the Algarve placed on the authorities the greatest challenges they had experienced. At one stage, over 1,000 firefighting personnel (Bombeiros/GNR GIPPS and others) were deployed, fighting four major fires nearly 140kms apart.
Over a 10-day period, around 2,750 firefighters from 173 units were engaged throughout the country plus some 730 vehicles and aircraft. The air temperature in the shade was 38ºC with a humidity of just 16%. Miraculously no one lost their life.
Situation for CFP 2016
Although forest fires for the first six months of the year have been lower, there are ominous signs for the summer. Firstly, the number of fires in June was 717, which is above average for the month, and, secondly, forecasts are for higher temperatures than usual.
The government has placed at disposal for the Critical Fire Period nearly 10,000 operational personnel, over 2,000 vehicles, around 2,200 other pieces of equipment and 47 aircraft/helicopters. Whether or not they are deployed is up to all of us!
What we can do
Safe Communities Portugal has focused a great deal on prevention, i.e. cleaning one’s land to reduce the risk of a fire reaching your property. This is still relevant, but there is a need now to also focus on what to do should a fire break out.
There are certain actions recommended by fire personnel and GNR GIPPS and these are shown in the table.
It is important to note that situations will vary, but the advice given by the authorities follows their vast experience in dealing with such incidents. In addition to these, keeping your smartphone charged in high risk periods is a useful tip.
In the event of major fires, any donations of items to help firefighters are welcome, especially water. The local fire station should be the contact point.
There is a morbid fascination for some to drive to fire locations and take photos. DO NOT do this as it can put your life in danger and impedes the work of the emergency services.
The authorities will not recommend that you abandon your home unless your life is in danger. You should help the children, elderly and handicapped persons, and don’t take unnecessary items. After you leave your home, don’t go back and return only when the authorities give you permission.
Contacting the emergency services
In case of fire or any other emergency, you should dial 112. For forest fires you can also dial 117. These are for emergency use only and should not be used for non-emergencies. Simply state the nature of the emergency, your name and exactly where you are. The operator’s standard of English is normally good.
Monitoring fires through the internet
The ANPC (Civil Protection Agency) is the authority responsible for the coordination of major emergencies, including forest fire outbreaks and the resources involved in firefighting. Insofar as the Algarve is concerned, the ANPC has an operational command centre based in Loulé and is manned by staff from other authorities such as the GNR.
All major fires are plotted and information updated regularly. If you wish to check if a major forest fire has broken out or the progress in fighting fires, then you can do so through the ANPC website.
Statement by ANPC National Operational Commander
In a speech given on July 1 by José Manuel Moura, National Operational Commander of the ANPC, he said: “It is the hope that with the contribution of all of us, we can face this Phase Charlie safely, with sincerity, truth, loyalty and sense of mission, which has led us here.”
So let everyone do their part. Portugal without fires is something we should all aspire to.
By David Thomas
David Thomas is a former Assistant Commissioner of the Hong Kong Police, consultant to INTERPOL and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In October 2011 he founded Safe Communities Algarve an on-line platform www.safecommunitiesalgarve.com here in the Algarve to help the authorities and the community prevent crime. It is now registered as Associação SCP Safe Communities Portugal, the first national association of its type in Portugal, with a new website www.safecommunitiesportugal.com launched in May 2015. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on 913045093 or at www.facebook.com/scalgarve