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The commitment?

Witnesses and experts of the catastrophe that struck Monchique a year ago were heard at the public hearing in Monchique on August 3rd. One of the goals of those present, amongst whom was Rui Lopes, commander of firefighters, married and father of two, was to re-examine the failures of 2018. “Commitment” was the keyword of his speech.

Please explain to us the meaning of the word “commitment”(compromisso).
It can have several meanings: agreement, obligation or debt. When we talk about forest fires there has to be an agreement, a commitment on the part of all those taking part in the defence of the forest against fires. We talk about prevention, and then retrospectively about combat policies, when prevention fails.

What do we notice if we compare this word with the reality of last year?
There is still a lot to be done in terms of legislation. This should regulate what the forests are, the properties themselves, not only state owned, but also those owned by ordinary people. And that clearly this is hindered by the existence of abandoned property. In cases of failure to clean, strong fines should be imposed and even, in an extreme case, there should be expropriation. But here too, it’s necessary for the state to set an example. And what we often see is that land belonging to the state is neither organised nor properly cleaned.

Let’s talk about monocultures. In Monchique we have large monocultures.
Yes we do. In this case, extra care will have to be taken with the legislation. Its scope should not only be punitive, for those who fail to fulfil their duty, but also preventive, being aware of the difficulties in managing that which is everyone’s heritage. It’s necessary to take a look in terms of organisation. There is a need for studies that don’t merely refer to the type of trees or plants best indicated, but which indicate where and how they should be planted.
If we come to the conclusion that a certain piece of land can only have a particular species of tree and when that species represents a reduction in part of the owner’s income, then it’s only fair that they should be reimbursed for that part, provided that it’s kept clean.

If we use this word “commitment” and transport it to 2018, how do we interpret the contradictions?
Last year’s fire has its own very particular characteristics. It happened at a time when the country was experiencing devastating weather conditions. In over 30 years as a firefighter, I don’t remember more than one time of the year – and that was cyclical, it was a week or so – when we were on red alert.
We had very high temperatures and intense heat, low relative humidity and also a wind of considerable strength. It’s not an excuse. When fighting forest fires the success or failure can never be confused with weather conditions. It cannot be an excuse. Yes, it is a contributing factor. We cannot conceal this situation, but we must be properly prepared and address the problem to the best of our ability.

What went wrong for the fire to get completely out of control?
More important than trying to understand what went wrong – because this analysis is currently being done and there’s still a Home Office inquiry underway – it’s necessary to look at what happened and to take steps to ensure that it doesn’t occur again. There were, as I said, several constraints. At an early stage the fire was dominated, during the morning there were no active flames within the whole perimeter of the fire. Yes, there were two hot spots that were being subjected to consolidation operations, but then in the afternoon we had a phenomenon …

Saturday, August 4th…?
Yes, at around 3 pm, there was a weather phenomenon in the Algarve, which raged across the areas of Albufeira, Silves and Lagoa. There was a very strong wind, accompanied by some rain and hail that, according to meteorologists, also had a negative effect on the fire zone, causing tornadoes that allowed the fire to reactivate. Reactivations of this kind depend on many conditions … the combustible material surrounding the area of the fire had already been pre-heated and had been subjected to the temperatures generated by the fire on the previous day.
The firefighters involved were tired. The following day, on Sunday, the fire was again practically under control. There were only two situations once again… then, unfortunately, the fire broke into an area with a very steep watercourse, which runs from the coast to Portela do Vento, (Ribeira do Seixe), an area where there is always a wind. It was difficult, almost impossible to stop and the people had to be evacuated, the houses protected…

Were there no planes available?
The great difficulty for operations occurred on Monday. Due to the intensity of the smoke and the low humidity, what we call a “tac” was made. The planes could take off, but then they were not able to return to the centre of Beja.

Is the origin of this fire finally clear?
Officially, there are not yet …

… there are reports.
Everything points to its being started by an electricity cable, but so far, officially, the report from the Internal Administration has not yet come out.

A year later neither the GNR nor the PJ has published the criminal report.
Yes.

Does the technical report already exist?
The technical report from the Independent Commission already exists.

How can you do better if everything happens again?
If current conditions remain the same it may happen again. If no incentive measures are taken to get people back to the land, to return to the interior, the abandonment of land will continue.
The remaining people invested – a lot of land was cleaned – but given the characteristics and dynamics of the fire, this land was also affected. This creates a feeling of demotivation.

Are there measures to improve defense against this disaster?
Civil Protection acts at the last stage in the the defense of the forest against fires. Our work will be helped, in many ways, if there is good prevention and vigilance beforehand. However, we have to concern ourselves with that which is our mission not what other entities are doing. We try to maintain an operational structure of a significant dimension. At this moment we have 58 members. We only have 20 applicants for recruitment, they are volunteers, but they will have to undergo a one-year training so that they can later join the Fire Department staff.
In terms of operational structure, but professional, we also have another team (permanent intervention), which began operating on February 1st this year.

How many vehicles and teams are available at this time?
We have four firefighting vehicles and three teams. Five members in each vehicle. One is stationed in Marmelete 24 hours a day and we have two more stationed in Monchique.

If you have four vehicles, one team is missing.
This team, this vehicle goes out when the second alarm is set off. If this is done, more people leave with this vehicle. It’s also a reserve vehicle for what are considered to be professional teams that are permanently ready to go out. If there’s a malfunction in one of these three vehicles, we’ll have the fourth. In addition, we also have four tank vehicles.

Are four vehicles in Monchique enough to defend a terrain of almost four hundred square kilometres?
We don’t work alone. We currently have no capacity for more. The recruitment capacity is very low because the municipality itself doesn’t have many young people. De-population affects us too.

They received, for example, firefighters from Oeiras and Lamego, from anywhere in the country, who had no idea what to put out in Monchique.
That is a false question. The question often comes up about units that come from outside and don’t know the terrain. For this purpose, we’ve adopted some measures in operational terms. The rule in fighting forest fires is ungrouped, isolated work. With the endorsement of a knowledgeable guide of the terrain for organised groups, we will make it easier to understand the particular characteristics of the terrain. In terms of preparation, every firefighter, volunteer or permanent firefighter, necessarily receives the same training in firefighting, rescue techniques, rescue and release.

But we had firefighters in Monchique who didn’t know where they were.
Sometimes there are teams that have less experience because, geographically, they come from cities and not countryside locations. We, who are “country” firefighters, if we are going to fight a fire in the city, we certainly have the know-how, but we don’t have the experience of the terrain. But that is minimised with commitment, and it’s possible to train for it. Last year there were claims that teams were assigned no mission…

… With vehicles stationary and no orders to act, with houses very close to burning…
Sometimes that information reaches the command headquarters. Then we need to understand how everything came about. Sometimes the teams are resting, at other times waiting for their mission. The group commander, who also leads the firefighting, will have information that the firefighters themselves don’t have. Sometimes it’s easier to say, “We don’t have orders to …”.
They also appeared in the media, notably on a television channel, with alleged statements by a group commander that they’d been firefighting for several hours and that they hadn’t been assigned a mission. But this person didn’t show his face in front of the cameras. This is an act of cowardice. If I’m in a theatre of operation, finish my mission and have no mission assigned, I go to the command post myself, physically or by radio, and request that I be assigned a mission. I don’t stay there for four or five hours and then when someone asks me, I say, “I’m here because they didn’t give me a mission”. In that case he was there because he wasn’t interested in having a mission.

In the technical report of the Assembly of the Republic it is stated, on page 54, that there were no briefings of the Civil Protection command between Sunday, August 5th, at 9:30 and Tuesday the 7th, at 10:30.
The briefings were done daily. It’s not possible. There were briefings and they’re documented. The briefing is a meeting between the various entities that are in the theatre of operations, or through representatives, the sector commanders, operations officers, training and logistics officers are present …

From Friday to Sunday, Vitor Vaz Pinto was the person in charge of the District Command, right?
Yes, yes.

But he left on Sunday.
Yes, he was replaced.

But the second national commander, Patricia Gaspar, only arrived in Monchique on Tuesday. There are two days without command.
No, there was always command and control capability. It’s a false question. I cannot say if Commander Patricia arrived on Tuesday. But what I can say is that the fire reached Monchique on Sunday and when it arrived the commander Vaz Pinto was still carrying out his duties. I was present.

Between 5 and 7 pm.
Yes, I can assure you. The fire reached the town between 10pm and midnight more or less.

Was he responsible?
He was the commander of operations, that’s right. There was always command and control capacity. One must, however, understand the dynamics of this fire. When it passed the Altura das Corchas, on Sunday afternoon, it opened on two huge fronts and with a dynamic that didn’t allow direct combat.

The fire could not cross the EN 266.
Exactly, it wasn’t possible. It couldn’t get there. We had advised that the fire wouldn’t get there, that it would stay in the Poio do Açor area.

The EN 266 offered a chance to stop the fire.
Exactly. It came along a water course and when it got there, it opened up, one front came towards Cantina and another towards Monchique- Bemposta – Cabeço de Ferro. Here at around 18.00, the front didn’t allow any means of firefighting (GNR jeeps and a group from Lisbon) to pass to Alferce. One group went to work in the Umbria area, the other in the Bemposta area and couldn’t get through to Alferce; which was hit by the second fire front: the one from Cantina.

We read this report very carefully. If the fire brigade and the Civil Protection Command couldn’t stop the fire on the EN 266, for what reason were they not able to do so later on the EN 267? There was another course between Corte Pequeno and Corte Grande. There was another road between Caldas, Esgravatadouro and Fornalha. Why did they not stop the fire if there were 1,500 firefighters available?
We have to understand the dynamics of the fire. This is easily noticeable seen from the air. If we look at this fire we’ll see that it starts north of Monchique … on the second day, not the first. On the first day, the fire is dominated on Saturday morning, with three hundred and seventy hectares …

In Perna da Negra.
Yes. On Sunday, when the population was evacuated, some seven hundred, eight hundred hectares had burned. But then it overcame everything, extending on two very large fronts. And it was no longer possible to confront it with any means of firefighting. Reinforcement took time to arrive, and when it did, the concern was to safeguard housing. The priority in firefighting is to safeguard people, property and then safeguard the environment. In that case the safeguarding of the people was possible through evacuation.

And in many cases, against people’s will.
In many places, against people’s will. It’s always debatable whether it was done in the best way. In fact, it’s a process of a lesson learnt that requires some improvements because it was not actually done the best way. But it had to be done. There were places where it was possible to leave people, when they were healthy, young and capable of working, if only because the population of Monchique is used to living with fire, working in the countryside and to knowing how to defend themselves. There is a lot of work that’s been done in terms of the “Safe Villages, Safe People” project, in defending homes against fire …

It’s possible to come back to this word, “commitment,” and say, we can teach people.
Yes.

Teach people to defend their land, their property, their home.
But this is only possible if the prevention work is well done. If, near the dwellings, the ground is clear. Life is priceless.

Would it be an idea to organise a seminar, a workshop, with people from the villages and countryside?
Self-protection measures. We can do that.

How many people, how much time …?
Thirty, forty. One or two weekends would be enough.

During this winter? Combined commitment?
Yes. Let’s do it!

Let’s come back one last time to the word “commitment”. It also means that the Town Council and Civil Protection must keep their commitments…
Obviously. This is always one of the “obligations” of the Town Council, but for this…

Last year and again this year they failed to take care of the vegetation, of the cleaning of roads verges …
We have to look at the situation in order to understand why and not be unfair to the point of saying which entity, A or B, didn’t comply. Why didn’t they do it? In effect there are situations lacking explanations…

The Mayor, at the last extraordinary Municipal Assembly, said that there is no money. There is no money to clear the verges of roads in the municipality.
If they don’t have it, how will they be able to do it?

Thank you.

Uwe Heitkamp

traduções: Fernando Medronho & Penny e Tim Coombs | fotografias: Uwe Heitkamp

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