The fire in Monchique in 2018 was considered to be the biggest in Europe that year. It was active from 3 to 10 August and consumed more than 27,000 hectares. In the aftermath, several failures were detected. Many people were left without their belongings and without any support to help them cope with their losses. The local population seem to want to say that’s enough and have joined together to form the Monchique Alert Association – Mountains Free from Fire (Associação Monchique Alerta – Serra Livre de Incêndios). They believe that they can be part of the change, fighting for everyone’s survival, as well as that of the region itself.
On Friday, 14 June, 2019, 51 members will meet for the first election of the assembly. It’s that special moment: it is now ten months since the fire that devastated Monchique. In this municipality alone, 74 houses were hit by the fire, 30 of them people’s main homes. However, to date, none of them have yet been rebuilt. Affected by this catastrophe, some of the inhabitants of this municipality in the Algarve seem to feel a sense of resignation with regard to the events and fires that have recurrently hit the region. The people are shaken and tired, but they don’t feel defeated. Since the middle of January this year, an informal group have met and formed an association, uniting to change what they consider to be wrong. “This association arose from the will of a group of people, some born in Monchique, others who are residents that care about the place where they live, who want to do something to change the system that has been in force until today. I’m 56 years old, and since my childhood I have witnessed and helped in fighting many fires. It always goes in cycles, and the same thing always happens. The fires keep coming back and, until now, the people of Monchique have just watched them happening and suffered tremendous losses,” said Filipe Duarte, the president of the new Monchique Alert Association. The facts confirm his words. In the last 15 years, the hills of Monchique have known no respite: in September 2003, about 41,000 hectares of forest were consumed by the flames and several houses burned down. Altogether, 78% of the municipality of Monchique burned that year. In July 2004, a new fire destroyed more houses and led to several evacuations. In 2016, over a nine-day period, this region was again turned into an inferno of flames, with 3,745 hectares being burned. Two years later, last August, Monchique relived the nightmare once again.
Only nine months later, on 9 May, this year, the report of the Independent Monitoring Centre, created by Parliament, was published, pointing to a probable cause for the fire in Monchique – a high voltage power line. At the same time, this document reveals that several of the necessary safeguards failed to operate in the fight against the flames, ranging from the absence of the necessary firebreaks to the lack of any strategy on the part of the authorities. They failed to provide the essential means of combat and to organise the necessary land clearance, among other factors.
Filipe Duarte also points to the lack of planning in the territory, resulting in the uncontrolled spread of eucalyptus trees, which now occupy almost 80% of the Serra de Monchique and dominate the landscape. “Local politicians have never been able to resolve this situation, which must begin with intervention in the forest. The problem is always the same. There is no intervention, the necessary firebreaks have not been created, nor have a third of those that were already being made been completed. As for eucalyptus, what has always happened is that people sell the trees and the entrepreneurs then cut them down, taking the wood that interests them, while the remaining highly combustible material is just left lying on the ground. The forest is never completely cleared,” he laments. Filipe Duarte is not the only citizen with the desire to bring change to this Algarve municipality. Among the several dozen local inhabitants who make up the Monchique Alert Association is Maria Helena Cerqueira, aged 67, “I felt it was necessary to do something constructive. I knew about the knowledge and interest of this group of people who were setting up the association. I thought I should make a more active contribution. As an association, instead of acting individually, we are acting as a group, and this gives us a different force, with more power,” says, the new vice-president, who is an architect by profession.
The associative movement Monchique on Alert – Mountains Free from Fire – seeks to provide aid to those who are injured and affected by the fires. Filipe Duarte adds that “there are some people who have lost everything and don’t have the necessary support. Nor do they know how to deal with the various bureaucratic compensation processes they are presented with; many of them are alone and desperate.”
The new president of the association can already count on the backing of more than 100 participants, and several activities have been planned for the short and medium term. “One of our goals is to inspire action, showing that there already exists an association of capable people. We’re going to help people rebuild the houses that were burned.”
On Saturday, August 3, at 11 a.m. the association inaugurates a photo exhibition about the wild fire on the Largo do Chorões in Monchique, followed by a Public Hearing with testimonies of the catastrophe and fire experts, such as Professor Domingos Xavier Viegas of the University of Coimbra, will answer the question: How can we prevent forest fires in the future?