“Portugal has a catastrophic amount of fuel in its forests”
A team of South African experts was in our country, invited by Tiago Oliveira, president of the Mission Structure for the Management of Rural Fire. The head of the team was alarmed by what he saw: “If nothing is done, it can burn all over again”
What was the purpose of your visit to Portugal?
Our team belongs to Wildfire , a company specializing in fire management and the articulation of all means of combat. This visit was part of an international sharing program. The reason is simple: fire behaves exactly the same throughout the world. The science of fire is exactly the same. People speak different languages, but they do exactly the same. Which means that any lesson learned in one place in the world has to be shared. We do not have enough time to create our own experience. Mistakes should not be repeated because they can hurt or kill many people. That is why we are here because we have the experience that we can share.
What did you conclude about the situation in Portugal at this time, given the tragedy of last year?
Undoubtedly, the Portuguese situation is complex. It is not global warming or climate change that causes the big fires. It’s the fuel that’s available on the land to burn, and that’s one of the lessons the world is learning this year. California burned, Montana, Sweden, Greece, Portugal, Indonesia, South Africa all at the same time. And the common denominator in all of them was not the behaviour of the fire or the fact that it was very dry, but the amount of fuel on the ground ready to burn. And this has its origin in a large-scale bias according to which all fire is evil. One sees a fire and goes out because it is bad, bad, bad. Nature is not like that. Nature is poised to burn. There are many species that are adapted to the fire and seek it to develop, to maintain and to make the seeds germinate.
Is it important to clean the vegetation, one of the measures that the government has promoted most this year?
Yes, but not just at ground level. The commercial plantations are constituted by lines of trees with space between them, so that in a fire fight the firemen can move between them. If the trees are not so it is not possible to catch fire. They must have space between them.
And did you see much forest “disorganization” in Portugal?
All over the place. There are years and years of accumulated fuel, and the fuel has to be managed.
This happens only in Portugal?
I loved to say that they are special – and they are in many things – but in this matter they are not unique. What is unique is that you are very complex, have many small roads with only one entrance and one exit. If someone gets caught in the middle of a fire, it’s very bad.
What do we have to do more to prevent these large fires?
What is lacking is even large-scale fuel management. Anyone responsible for an area must be focused on that management. Burn the vegetation more, change it, cut it, whatever it takes … Give space to the trees and the firemen to fight the fires when they happen …
From what you say, is there always a great possibility of repeating the tragedy of 2017, at least in relation to the great size of the burned area?
Yes. Portugal has a catastrophic amount of fuel in its forests. Something has to be done. It is a complex situation. If nothing is done, it can very easily burn all over again.
If this problem is identified, why do you think it is not resolved?
One of the reasons is the prejudice I have already mentioned about the exclusion of fire. The fire existed many years before us and will continue long after us. The point is that at the moment this fuel problem has become global. Portugal has learned its lessons, and if nothing is done it happens again.
Is it like fighting fire with fire?
Not just with controlled fire. Anyway, at this point the amount of fuel is so great that they can not risk using the fire to make such management. It’s too dangerous. You have to clean first and then use the fire.
Apart from this fuel question, what other problems can you point out?
According to our experience, you have good training and training, great resources, field personnel, aircraft. It’s brilliant. However, and I will say this in a gentle way, sometimes there could be a better use of these resources. There could be more efficient use. It is not complicated to fight a fire, but managing a fire is a whole different science. In the triangle that constitutes fire – heat, oxygen and fuel – the only side we can influence is even that of fuel. It is the only part of the triangle on which we can have direct control. If we can do it, why do not we? We know it’s going to burn, it’s an emergency. It may be hot, it may be dry, but if there is no burning fuel, it just does not burn. Of course they can say that if there was no ignition the fire would not start. But if there was no fuel,
What do you foresee for the future in Portugal on this issue?
Unless something is done – and I do not just say it, I say do it myself – it will happen again what has already happened. And I hate to say this. But I can even write it on a piece of paper.
What was the biggest surprise of what you saw this month?
The speed with which the fuel has increased since the last time I was here in November 2017. It really hurt a lot. I thought there were big problems again. What do we do? Reduce fuel. My team, who was in the area of Pedrógão and in Monchique saw electricity poles without the clean ground of vegetation around the wheel, when this was one of the causes of fires. We are not learning the lessons. And I say “we” on a global scale.
The government promoted for a few months the cleaning of the forests and many people did it …
But there has to be continuity. If it does not, the problem even gets worse. The seeds germinate faster.
Are there any countries that are a good example in fire prevention?
All countries have good and more areas. Here in Portugal, for example, in Sintra, in the area managed by Monte da Lua (Monte da Lua Parks), they are doing an incredible job in fuel management. We know that it is not an easy job to do all over the country, but it is even necessary. Politicians have to know this, because they are the ones who send the money. If there is political will, there can be change. People have to know that you cannot blame climate change. It’s too late for that.