Government released on 28th February 2019, The Centre for Studies on Forest Fires Report into the Fires that resulted in the death of 51 people in October 2017

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.

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