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Using the time circuit caused a glow in the filament of a light bulb, burning the surrounding combustible matter – at which time the person would be a long way away.

A 38-year-old man was arrested on 19th July 2021 by the Judiciary Police on suspicion of having started at least 16 fires, including the fires in Sertã and Proença-a-Nova on previous weekend and the huge fire that ravaged Mação, in 2017, and that consumed 33 thousand hectares, said the Judiciary.

Profile of arsonists is diversifying. A man arrested earlier this week shows that it is time to innovate in the criminal investigation of forest fires.

The Judiciary Police (PJ) begins to confront more sophisticated arsonists. One of the last, arrested this week, would carefully plan the ignition, manufacturing a device that would enable him to be far away.

At 38, the man, reserved, discreet, lived with his mother, in the parish of Várzea de Cavaleiros, in the municipality of Sertã, in the district of Castelo Branco. The father died a few years ago in a tractor accident.

Male, single, no criminal record. The correspondence with the standard arsonist seems to end there. Not unemployed. He is not unskilled worker. He does not have a low level of education.

He came across by PJ as an electrical engineer capable of creating incendiary electronic contraptions. The Ordem dos Engenheiros hastened to clarify that he is not registered with that professional organization and therefore cannot be considered an engineer. Anyway, that was his training, working in a factory in a neighbouring municipality, Oleiros.

The point is that this is the third alleged forest arsonist presented by the PJ since the fire season began. And it has nothing in common with the 70-year-old alcoholic man who, in June, used a lighter to start a fire in Sanfins de Ferreira, Paços de Ferreira. Or with the unemployed, single man, aged 57, who, in July, used a direct flame to start a fire in the municipality of Figueiró dos Vinhos.

“Let’s say he is not part of the most frequent profile, which is that of socially disintegrated people”, agrees Carlos Farinha, deputy national director of the Judiciary Police. “On the one hand, the concept of social integration is relative. On the other hand, our psychology office has found cases that escape the closed profile of a few years ago. Let’s say that the mosaic has been gaining different colours, although some of them are even provided for in the literature and do not surprise those who make the assessment.”

It’s not just the differentiated profile. It is also the method. The device associated with a timer allowed him to schedule the fire hours or days in advance (up to 14 days, if he wanted to).

At Monday’s press conference, research coordinator Fernando Ramos explained that closing the time circuit caused a glow in the filament of a light bulb, burning the surrounding combustible matter. When that happened, the man could be far away, surrounded by people, free from suspicion.

Investigators are convinced that this tall, stocky man with short grey hair knows the progression of the flames. And that he would prepare everything in such a way as to ensure that the fire would not soon be controlled by the firefighters, he had a chance to gain some dimension, to get closer to the houses, to generate distress. He would choose the place and time, taking into account the slopes, the water lines, the weather forecast – the temperatures, the direction of the winds and the degree of humidity. He would prefer busy days, such as the weekend of the Gastronomy Festival in Maranho this year and 2019.

It is suspected that, more than seeing the flames or the bustle of firefighters, he was interested in observing the distress of others. “The bibliography says that some profiles of arsonists are associated with the exercise of power”, says Carlos Farinha, without wanting to elaborate on the suspect’s alleged motives. “Seeing people in affliction, knowing you are responsible for what gave rise to that affliction, can make you feel that you have a power.”

It was not easy to get to him. “The investigation begins in 2019 with a fire in Sertã in which we detected these incendiary artefacts”, he says. That year, they found the same mill in two fires and suspected they were facing the same author. “We worked hard to direct suspicion towards that person. We did a lot of information gathering. Who had been in that area? Who had given the alert? How had the fire started and developed? Things evolved.”

In 2020, authorities again found similar artefacts in the fires that devastated 5,000 hectares in Oleiros and 14,000 in Proença-a-Nova. So they decided to revisit old cases. And, in these steps, they discovered “things that had not been found or valued in 2018 or 2017.” Little by little, they gathered elements that led them to the suspect.

In his opinion, this case shows how much innovation is needed in the criminal investigation of forest fires. Using intrusive methods, such as the collection of network assets, cell location, telephone interceptions, in short, “everything that is provided for in the law, but little was used, because fires relied heavily on direct approach, next”.

Last Sunday, at 2:30 pm, the man will have activated devices in four areas covered by scrub, eucalyptus, pine, strawberry trees and other species, close to villages. In the fire, which consumed 60 hectares in the municipalities of Sertã and Proença-a-Nova, the GNR found a mill. And the Judiciary Police issued the search warrants that he had already had time to request.

For now, with the help of GNR, the PJ has found 16 electronic devices, including the fire that, in 2017, consumed 33 thousand hectares in Mação . Admits that more have been used and have not been discovered or devoured by the flames.

The expertise indicates that the 16 artifacts “have a similar function”. But to hold the suspect responsible, who has been awaiting trial at the Castelo Branco Prison since Tuesday, “it is necessary to gather more evidence, more evidence”, warns Carlos Farinha. “This is a work that will have to be deepened with the investigation.”

Asked how many inquiries have been opened and how many people have been detained for the crime of arson since the beginning of this year, the deputy national director replied that “it is not time for balance sheets”. It is time, yes, to give some information about cases that deserve attention, like this one and others.

In his opinion, it’s time to look at the phenomenon from an integrated perspective. “We’re not going to stop the fires by trapping a few arsonists. We will contribute to stopping the fires by controlling the conduct of some arsonists, maintaining vigilance, taking into account possible recurrence situations, but the phenomenon is much more complex, it has a lot to do with negligent conduct, forestry planning, capacity to fight fires”.

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