Portugal's forest fires, though never before as deadly, are all too familiar

Monitor correspondent Catarina Fernandes Martins grew up in the region of central Portugal being ravaged by forest fires – a chronic problem there. But despite the understanding of the cause, few preventative measures have been taken.

Rafael Marchante/Reuters
Firefighters worked to put out a forest fire near Gois, Portugal, June 20. Officials are still debating whether arson or lightning set off the blazes, which scorched tens of thousands of acres and killed more than 60 people. As of Monday, June 26, the fires were said to be largely under control.

To my family, summer meant only one thing: fire.

Every year, the fire would destroy another piece of forest, the piece that hadn’t burned the year before. Every year, it would move closer and closer to villages where my relatives grew up, closer and closer to the houses of third cousins I had never seen. On some August evenings, the nearby fires generated so much heat that we covered the chairs with bed sheets and ate in our beachwear.

But this year was worse. Fires swept through the center of Portugal in the past week, killing 64 people. “No one could have predicted these many people would die, but those who know the land know that this territory has been anxiously expecting a tragedy for decades,” says Paulo Castro, an expert in forest fires.

And now, experts say that it is the time to implement the solutions everyone has been debating for decades: dealing with the fragmented ownership of the forest, closer enforcement of laws meant to prevent fires, and restrictions on the growth of eucalyptus trees, which have supplanted more fire-resistant domestic species.

Catarina Fernandes Martins
Forty-seven people were killed on Estrada National 236-1 by the forest fire, earning the highway the moniker 'road of death.'

“Everyone knows we have to deal with fires when summer arrives, but never like this,” says Rodrigo Silva, from the village of Nodeirinho, one of the hardest hit. Eleven of its 30 residents were killed.

Many of those killed were trapped in their cars on a highway surrounded by forest. Mr. Silva and his family tried to escape using the same road. But by the time they were ready to jump in the car, his house was filling up with smoke as flames roared through the forests that surrounded it. Along with other neighbors, he and his family took shelter around a tank full of water near the house. They waited in the dark and watched as everything around them burned, taking turns soaking their clothes and faces. In the end, they survived what Prime Minister Antonio Costa called “a level of human tragedy that Portugal has never seen before.”

A week after, my dad and I drove that road. As we traveled, he showed me how close the eucalyptus trees stand to the road, even though “the law forbids it,” he says. It was easy to imagine those highly flammable trees becoming arches of flames. He tells me the story of how, 50 years ago, his whole village, awakened in the middle of the night by the church bell, would gather to fight the fire.

“It was an event. We used to draw the fires with pine sticks. Of course fires were not as dangerous because back then a lot of people lived in the country and they kept the forests clean,” he says. 

Portugal is one of the most heavily forested countries in Europe, but only 1.6 percent of that land is owned by the state – the lowest percentage in Europe. Most of that land is highly fragmented. In the past 50 years, rural populations have dwindled (one out of nine people now live in coastal cities), leaving these privately owned plots of land abandoned and neglected.

At the same time, large parts of central and northern Portugal became covered with eucalyptus, a sap-rich, fast-growing tree, native to Australia. It sucks up scarce groundwater but is considered highly profitable because it provides raw material for the paper industry. Eucalyptus trees have destroyed native species like oaks, chestnuts, and cork – which are more resistant to fire – and now cover a quarter of total forest land.

For decades, environmentalists and forest experts have called for the planting of oaks, chestnuts, and cork trees and for restrictions on eucalyptus. Efforts to circumscribe eucalyptus to specific areas have been blocked by Portugal’s paper industry lobby.

Catarina Fernandes Martins
Dina Duarte and João Viola of Nodeirinho, Portugal, are trying to plant new flowers and trees to bring back the green.

“The laws are good but no one is following the law,” says Dina Duarte, a civil servant whose backyard in Nodeirinho was destroyed by the fire. Ms. Duarte lost four close relatives, but she says the village is so small that everyone is, in fact, “a close relative.” 

Mr. Castro, the forest fire expert, says the only way to avoid another tragedy is by “fostering the repopulation of rural areas with incentives to agriculture, prioritizing native trees, and circumscribing eucalyptus trees to the areas around paper factories.” 

João Branco, president of Quercus, an environmental campaign group, adds another solution. “We need to proceed with re-parceling the land that’s highly divided,” he says. He also stresses the need to limit the growth of eucalyptus. “Before we do those two things there’s no point in even discussing emergency responses to fires.”

Back in Nodeirinho, Duarte, the civil servant, talks about the bursting sprouts of the tilia tree already growing in her backyard. “Maybe these sprouts mean an end to the fire season,” she says. “This needs to end. We can’t go on fearing the summer.”

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