15. Jul, 2017

Forest Fires in Portugal "What makes Portugal such a tinderbox?"

Critics say:"the agencies responsible for prevention, detection and emergency response to fires suffer a lack of co-ordination"

With a mean annual fire incidence of 3% of its forest and wildland surface Portugal is the European country most affected by wildfire. Forest fires dynamics in Portugal in the last four decades are presented (the fire regime and the corresponding losses) as well as the corresponding socioeconomic, environmental and policy drivers. The 20th century and on-going changes in land use (afforestation and rural abandonment) and climate are described. Fire suppression is currently prioritized over fire prevention. However, the fire problem is rooted in in the socioeconomic factors behind fire occurrence (namely land use conflicts) and in the prevalence of unmanaged and flammable vegetation types.

Forest and land management and civil protection have different objectives and both need to be tackled for effective mitigation of wildfire impacts. Managing vegetation to induce higher fire-resilience and changing human behaviour are needed and must be fully encouraged and supported. It follows that the current relative allocation of resources should shift from fire suppression to fire prevention under an integrated fire management philosophy. Mitigation of the wildfire problem depends on institutional stability and persistence in following a coherent fire management policy.

Given that, was this year's tragedy preventable? Could Portugal have done anything more to save lives and minimise the damage? 

For a wildfire there are three important things; you have to take into account the fuel, the weather and the topography also the shape of the terrain. As far as the fuel is concerned, a shift to a more eucalyptus-dominant forest is certainly going to increase its flammability, because eucalyptus is a kind of oily tree that’s very flammable, and it’s also susceptible to what we call crown fires, where the top of the tree can burn. Fires predicted but not prevented There are also questions as to how well prepared the authorities were. Every year Portugal has big fires, and this one is different because it has killed a lot of people, but it’s no surprise at all. Almost every year, Portugal’s largest environmental group, Quercus, notify the government and authorities about the danger the Portuguese forest is becoming, because there is no management and the whole landscape system is being replaced by a continuous area of industrial forests of eucalyptus. In addition to industrial forestry. Public officials at all levels have been lax when it comes to enforcing laws about clearing away flammable undergrowth. The legislation says: "that on each side of the road, the local government has to clean 10 metres, taking out the combustible material, also 100 metres around a village  have to be clean. ", Nobody did anything about this, so here we have guilt divided between the central government, the local government and the justice system.

Portugal is one of the most heavily forested countries in Europe, but the vast majority of woodland - 85%, according to the World Forest Institute - is privately owned. Forest ownership is highly fragmented, with privately owned plots averaging only five hectares (12.7 acres). Lack of management of the forest is a key part of Portugal's problem. As rural populations have dwindled, many of these privately owned plots have been neglected, with brush and detritus accumulating. Which become fuel for the flames when a fire breaks out.

The Iberian peninsula is an area that I am very familiar with, but would increasingly like to be more. It is home to some 6,000 native flowering plant species, scattered over an amazingly wide range of habitats. Traveling through Spain makes one feel very optimistic about spending more time in the region. Central and northern Portugal however is a bit of a reality check. It is home to one of the biggest accidental experiments in ecology I have ever seen. One which looks disastrous and which has had amazingly little publicity, at least outside the country. Much of the region is dominated by eucalyptus, an Australian species introduced to Europe in the 18th Century but which really boomed in Portugal with the rise of paper industries in the mid-20th Century. It is one of the most profitable trees, but ecologists say eucalyptus sucks up rare groundwater and is bad for native plant and animal life. The sap-rich tree that now covers large parts of central and northern Portugal is also highly flammable.