Fires last October killed 48 people
By BARRY HATTON, Associated Press
LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Portugal’s government said Wednesday it was taking new steps to prevent wildfires, as a report into a three-day spate of blazes last October that killed 48 people said authorities should have been better prepared.
Weather forecasts before the deadly Oct. 14-16 spate of blazes and a severe drought gripping the country should have prompted officials to move firefighting equipment into place ahead of time, according to an expert report requested by the government.
Authorities should also have better warned the public about the potential danger by issuing a red weather alert, the 267-page report published late Tuesday said.
The wildfires were the largest ever recorded in Europe at that time of year, it said.
The report said that the so-called “mega-wildfires” were fanned by Hurricane Ophelia passing in the Atlantic, and at their peak burned an area the equivalent of 10,000 soccer fields every hour.
But authorities had stood down many firefighters, their vehicles and water-dropping planes by late September — the end of the typical three-month summer wildfire season — leaving emergency services unable to cope with blazes that were on “an extraordinary scale,” the report said.
Opposition parties criticized the government for failing to improve its firefighting capacity despite the death of 64 people in wildfires four months earlier.
Eduardo Cabrita, the Minister for Internal Administration, said the October wildfires occurred in “exceptional circumstances.” He added that the government is taking unprecedented measures to prevent forest blazes.
Those measures include legally obliging people to clean forests they own and create firebreaks, hiring 40 water-dropping aircraft and more rapid reaction firefighting crews, and limiting the size and location of eucalyptus plantations. Those trees are commonly blamed for fueling blazes.
The expert report is due to be debated in the Republican Assembly, Portugal’s parliament.
Last year, Portuguese wildfires blackened around 500,000 hectares (1.2 million acres) — equivalent to more than half the burned forest in Europe in 2017 — and killed 112 people.
The report blamed arsonists and farmers burning fields and woodland for starting most of the October wildfires. Eucalyptus trees and maritime pine trees, which make up around half of Portugal’s forests, accounted for almost 90 percent of the charred woodland, the report said.
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