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World

Leaping into Water Tanks to Escape Portugal's Deadly Fires

More than 2,700 firefighters were still battling Monday to contain several major wildfires in the area northeast of Lisbon

Burnt houses stand on a hill in the village of Figueira, near Pedrogao Grande, central Portugal, Monday, June 19 2017, photo: AP/Armando Franca
3 months ago

NODEIRINHO, Portugal – Survivors emerged Monday with stories of leaping into water tanks and other dramatic escapes from the forest fires scorching central Portugal, and authorities came under mounting criticism for not doing more to prevent Portugal’s deadliest natural disaster in decades.

More than 2,700 firefighters were still battling Monday to contain several major wildfires in the area northeast of Lisbon, where one blaze that began Saturday killed 63 people, many of them as they tried to flee the flames in their cars.

Water-dropping planes from Spain, France and Italy arrived as part of a European Union cooperation program but they were grounded in some places because thick smoke limited visibility, officials said. That left firefighters — backed by fire engines and bulldozers — to do the heavy work on the ground in temperatures that approached 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).

Firefighters brought some of the blazes under control, but other wildfires still raced through inaccessible parts of the area’s steep hills, the Civil Protection Agency said.

Portugal is observing three days of national mourning after the deaths Saturday night around the town of Pedrogao Grande, 150 kilometers (90 miles) north of Lisbon.

Scorching weather, as well as strong winds and woods that are bone dry after weeks with little rain, fueled the blazes. Villages dot the landscape, much of it now scorched.

In Nodeirinho, a hillside village of a few dozen people, 84-year-old Marta da Conceicao said residents called the fire services more than 20 times for help on Saturday.

“Nobody came. They were up in the mountain or somewhere else,” she told a news agency. “Here it was up to God and the people.”

As the flames licked at her, burning her leg, she and her elderly neighbors survived by jumping into a water storage tank.

A British man living nearby also had a hair-raising escape. Like more than half of the dead in Saturday’s blaze, Daniel Starling had jumped in his car and raced away as the flames bore down. He came across a family of four elderly people and picked them up. He said he drove around fallen trees and even off the road in his quest to reach safety.

“We stopped at one point, because we did not know where to go, because there were flames everywhere. But I just carried on the only way that I knew. [It was] just flames over the car and the family and me screaming,” said the 56-year-old from Norwich, England.

They stopped when they came to a policeman at a junction. “The family,” Starling said, “got out and they were kissing the car.”

Officials say 47 of the dead in Saturday night’s blaze died on a road as they fled the flames.

Fire experts, meanwhile, pointed to a series of shortcomings in Portugal’s strategy of tackling wildfires, even though the summer blazes have been happening for decades. There is a broad consensus that more work is needed on fire prevention, starting with forest clearing and the creation of fire breaks.

“In Portugal, the main factor in the scale of wildfires is the unbroken stretches of forest,” Paulo Fernandes, a forest researcher at Portugal’s Tras-os-Montes e Alto Douro University, told a news agency.

But he noted that around 90 percent of landowners have smallholdings, making it difficult for authorities to keep tabs on them all.

Xavier Viegas, a wildfire expert at Portugal’s Coimbra University, said Portugal needs a long-term strategy, but changes in government often mean changes in forest and farm policies.

A burnt truck next to a gate in the village of Pobrais, near Pedrogao Grande, central Portugal, Monday, June 19 2017. Photo: AP/Armando Franca

He said a key measure would be the creation of “fire-resilient communities” who receive instructions on what to do when faced with a wildfire and don’t act rashly.

“We need to prepare them so that they don’t go dashing off in cars,” Viegas told a news agency.

Portugal’s leading environmental lobby group, Quercus, blamed the blazes on “forest management errors and bad political decisions” by governments over recent decades. It rebuked authorities for allowing the planting of huge swathes of eucalyptus trees — the country’s most common and most profitable species — but one that’s often blamed for stoking blazes.

Emergency services have also been criticized for not closing the road where most of the deaths occurred.

Wildfires are an annual scourge in Portugal. Between 1993 and 2013, Portugal recorded the highest annual number of forest fires in southern Europe, according to a report last year by the European Environment Agency.

The government announced a raft of new measures against wildfires in March. They included restrictions on eucalyptus plantations and a simplified and cheaper program of property registration that seeks to ascertain which land is being neglected.

Not all of those reforms have come into force yet.

Statistics show that 35 percent of Portugal is covered by woodland, slightly above the EU average of 31 percent. The forest industry, especially the production of paper pulp, accounts for around 3 percent of the country’s GDP.

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