LISBON, Portugal – Almost all of the 2,000 Portuguese firefighters at a weeklong wildfire that killed 64 people this summer had something in common apart from the acute danger they faced: they were doing it for no pay and with equipment bought with public donations.
More than 90 percent of Portugal’s around 30,000 firefighters are volunteers. From lawyers to construction workers, they take time off work to risk their lives. What’s more, the volunteer fire departments where they work rely on donations and income from working at private events to pay for their equipment.
When they are deployed to a wildfire outside their area of residence during the summer fire season, the government pays these intrepid men and women 1.87 euros ($2) an hour. And the volunteer firefighters usually hand over that meager stipend to their financially stretched fire departments.
Hugo Simoes, a 33-year-old Lisbon bombeiro (firefighter) who was deployed in June to the country’s deadliest wildfire on record, says a sense of duty and brotherhood drives the volunteers. “We do it out of community spirit,” he says.
Volunteers are not uncommon in fire brigades in Europe and further afield — more than 97 percent of German firefighters are volunteers; in the U.S. that figure is around 70 percent. But in Portugal these unfunded services are the front line in emergencies, providing the backbone of the Civil Protection Agency’s resources. There are just seven professional fire departments in the country.
Simoes works for Portugal’s oldest fire department, the Bombeiros Voluntarios de Lisboa, created in 1868 by royal decree. For him, the volunteer spirit shown by generations of firefighters is unremarkable. It’s a cultural tradition.
“Here in Portugal it’s been like this for a long time,” he shrugs. “We like what we do. On hot days when we could go to the beach, we come here to the fire department instead, to help out.”
Simoes nowadays works full-time as an administrative clerk at the fire department, earning around 600 euros a month.
When the alarms rang in June to go and help at a massive blaze in woodland around Pedrogao Grande, about 150 kilometers (90 miles) north of Lisbon, Simoes set off with four vehicles and their crews.
“Some walked out of work and risked being marked as absent,” Simoes says. Across the country, other volunteer firefighters did the same.
Scorching weather, as well as strong winds and woodland that was bone dry after months with little rain, fueled the Pedrogao Grande blaze, just as it has other forest fires this summer. The fire spread so quickly that 47 people died on a road as they fled the advancing flames in their cars.
“The stress, the adrenaline, the heat — they demand a huge effort,” Simoes said. “At times it can get a bit hairy, but our training kicks in.”
Similar scenes play out each summer in Portugal: giant flames dwarf the firefighters, huge clouds of smoke stretch to the horizon, locals help out with buckets and garden hoses and swat at the flames with broken-off tree branches. Wildfires race through eucalyptus and pine forests that are uncleared and tightly packed.
This year has been particularly bad, due to a severe drought gripping 80 percent of the country. Wildfires in Portugal accounted for more than one-third of the burnt forest in the entire 28-nation European Union up to Aug. 5.
Last week, Simoes and his team were dispatched to a major forest fire in Abrantes, not far from Pedrogao Grande. Firefighters brought the blaze under control within 48 hours.
The volunteer firefighters are commonly depicted as heroes in Portugal. A recent fund-raising campaign described them as “heroes without capes.” Calls for food and water to help the firefighters inevitably bring a nationwide deluge of donations.
About 80 people are on call at the Bombeiros Voluntarios de Lisboa. They receive more than 300 hours of training, which is also done outside their day job.
Simoes says the department has always had enough staff, though it is stretched in emergencies.
It scrapes by financially. Fire suits cost almost 2,000 euros each. The recent purchase of 100 new helmets cost 28,000 euros.
Portugal’s volunteer fire departments often use vehicles bought second-hand. In Lisbon, that includes a fire truck purchased in Luxembourg. A new one costs more than 250,000 euros — way beyond their budget. Their dream, they confide, is to own a big American fire truck.