The season of wildfires

Wildfires have become ever more frequent in Portugal. The wildfires that tore through Portugal in 2017 garnered international headlines. With the summer season once again approaching, the Portuguese population and environmental organizations are once again preparing for the worst.

While wildfires are all but common in many areas of Southwestern Europe, it is hard to ignore that the intensity of these wildfires has increased substantially. The ‘Liga para a protecção da Natureza (LPN) is an organization that advocates for environmental causes and conservation. The organization claims “there was an increase in fire severity if we consider the last 3 decades. The fires of 2017 were an extreme example of this increase.” When asked if climate change plays a role in the increase of wildfires and the increasing severity of wildfires, the organization states that “there is a strong possibility that the increase in temperature is leading to more severe wildfires. At least there are several scientific papers pointing in that direction, for different world regions.” According to data collected by the World Wide Fund for Nature, out of most countries in Europe, Portugal has one of the highest average numbers of fires per decade and country.

Since the presence and effects of fires on life in Portugal seem to be a given for the foreseeable future, the efforts to prevent, contain, and the overall recovery process are all but dismal according to the organization. “The government is not taking adequate measures. On the fire fighting side there is a lot to be done to improve the performance of fire fighting crews, which are still mostly composed of volunteer firefighters”, says the organization. They add that “On the forest management side they are doing it the wrong way, putting an emphasis on fuel removal, rather than trying to convert the forest to less flammable forms.” The debate of what kinds of things should be planted to recover damaged forests is a heated one in Portugal. According to some Portuguese citizens, the continued reliance on planting eucalyptus trees as a way to replant the damaged forests is a ridiculous choice and suggests that it is being done for the sake of easy profits since eucalyptus trees burn faster than other trees. The LPN organization agrees, and states that “nothing is being done to encourage the landowners to shift from eucalypt plantations to native forests.”

On a policy level, there is discontent as to how policymakers have dealt with the wildfires and the response. The LPN organization claims “a board of experts was established by the Portuguese Parliament to study these fires and to propose new measures. These measures were proposed to the Government who is still trying to implement them.” Four years have passed since the disastrous 2017 summer fires, and environmental organizations still feel that not enough has been done to not just prevent the presence of ‘mega-fires,’ such as forest management and overall forest protection, but also the containment and recovery process.

When asked how Portugal is preparing for the possibility of renewed wildfires this upcoming summer season, LPN suggests “It is just business as usual. We have an inefficient firefighting system and the vegetation is, in many cases in worst condition than it was in 2017.” This lack of trust in the system also warrants LPN to suggest the future does not look good. “The future looks pretty dark, for the moment, unless some important reforms are introduced, which has not been the case so far.” While they feel that the Portuguese government has not done enough, LPN suggests that Portugal has received assistance from civil protection assistance programs rooted in the European Union.