The 15th October 2017 fires were completely exceptional. The country was experiencing a prolonged drought, a period when the operational structure was already partially demobilised, a very unusual meteorological phenomenon – the Hurricane Ophelia – that was felt throughout the country, but especially in the central region, very strong and dry winds that boosted the hundreds of ignitions that occurred on that day, producing several fires that together destroyed more than 220 thousand hectares in less than 24 hours, which is a record for Portugal. This resulted in seven major fires five of them together caused 51 fatalities and all produced an environmental and property devastation.
Some of the findings and highlights of the report are:
The strict definition of fire risk periods, based on calendar dates, without taking into account the seasonal changes in the weather and a concern with the containment of expenditure, led to a reduction of the operational structure, without paying due attention to the extreme fire risk that was forecasted a few days in advance. This lack of resources was felt especially in the absence of more vigilance, which could have reduced the number of ignitions, at least on the 15th, which led to the registration of 517 occurrences.
The task of defending people and property was limited by the difficulty of managing resources and placing them where they were required, because of the infeasibility of many paths.
The fact that in these fires we had relatively less people dying on the run, or away from home, certainly due to the perception, by the population of the message that our team has been spreading ‐ reinforced by PG experience ‐ that one should not leave the house at the last minute and with the fire nearby. In these cases, with respect to the authorities’ indications, it is preferable to remain at home and seek to defend it as long as it is safe. It is also important to identify in advance, in each village or town, safe places or homes that can serve as a refuge or shelter for residents or visitors during a fire event.
The practice, which has been implemented by the authorities, of ordering massive evacuations of threatened villages and places, while it may be justifiable in a life‐saving perspective, may be wrong if it is not well planned and not executed well in advance. On the other hand, the option to allow properly identified members of the population to remain in the places where they live, in an organized and supported way, can greatly contribute to the safeguarding of assets and consequently to reduce the pressure on operating entities.
We cannot fail to reaffirm our position regarding the failure of the ICNF as a fundamental pillar of the whole DFCI system, in the protection of the national forest, in the promotion of awareness campaigns, in the management of fuel discontinuities and in the protection of forestry areas that are in its charge. The destruction of an important part of the historical Leiria pine forest, which was under the management of the ICNF, constituted the corollary of the abandonment to which its management had been voted over the last decades.
There was again a need for the country to have a wider range of professional and qualified firefighters to ensure a more permanent availability, independent of the calendar dates, to support the population in crises situations such as the fires of October 15th.