Heatwave Lucifer has managed to bake much of southern Europe, with Portugal especially badly hit by a series of devastating forest fires, the latest of which started on Wednesday and continues to threaten the country as the weekend approaches.
The worst fire started on Wednesday evening in the Abrantes region in central Portugal and needed 680 firemen and eight planes and helicopters to stop it spreading in the face of variable strong winds and dry conditions.
Six villages in the Abrantes area had to be evacuated on Thursday afternoon with the mayor saying the next day that “The situation is calmer, not resolved, but everything is under control and can be resolved in the afternoon.”
On Friday morning, a column of smoke rose was visible in the hills to the north of Santarém as the area was being doused by a specialist Canadair aircraft. On Thursday night the fire had threatened the suburbs of the city but was beaten back buy fire crews.
Another blaze broke out on Thursday near Grândola where at least 3,000 hectares of forest has been consumed, the EN358 near Abrantes was closed to traffic and the north-south rail service was suspended.
Until Sunday, all of Portugal’s mainland regions remain on high, or very high alert with temperatures nudging 40°C.
Fires temporarily closed several sections of the A14 and A23 motorway across the country, including a ten-kilometre section of the A1 motorway, Portugal’s main road linking Lisbon to Oporto and continue to be fought through Friday in the Santarém and Setúbal districts.
Thursday August 10th now holds the record for the most fires on any one day in Portugal’s history, with 215 outbreaks, many of them deliberate. Some 45 were in the Oporto district, 26 in Coimbra, 24 in Braga and 19 in Lisbon being fought by 5,385 fire fighters with 1,451 vehicles and 97 aircraft.
The president of the Portuguese Firefighters’ League, Jaime Marta Soares, said that more than 80% of wildfires in Portugal had a “criminal origin”.
Weather conditions will be “especially favourable for wildfires” until Sunday, with strong winds and temperatures of up to 39 degrees Celsius forecast, the civil protection agency spokeswoman, Patricia Gaspar, told a news conference.
These latest fires come after more than 60 people were killed in June, and more than 250 injured, in a giant blaze at Pedrógão Grande in central Portugal.
After an uncommonly dry winter and spring, almost 79% of the Portuguese mainland is suffering an extreme or severe drought, according to the national weather service.
Portugal again is relying on expensive help from Spain, France and Morocco which are delighted to send in firefighting aircraft on an hourly rate.
The Algarve, apart from a few incidents that have been dealt with swift and efficiently, has been unaffected so far by the type of widespread fire in many northern districts.
The government continues to commission reports and look for a suitable scapegoat after the Pedrógão Grande fire in which 64 people died. A new forestry reform programme aims to reduce the prevalence of eucalyptus plantations over time and the SIRESP communications system has been shown to be ineffective, especially when there is a fire, making it another expensive mistake.
What now is needed is sustained rainfall and the death penalty for arsonists. Other knee-jerk government measures are too late to have any effect on the remainder of the summer season in 2017.