Southern Europe is facing a wave of large-scale fires. Thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes in Portugal, France, Spain, Greece and Croatia as a result of the hundreds of fires registered in the last week, fueled by the heat wave that is hitting Europe and North Africa, with temperatures that exceed 45 degrees.
The Portuguese Alexandre Fontes, 40, is one of them. When she returned to her home in Machados, in Leiria (central Portugal), this Thursday, some areas that bordered the wall of his farm were still smoking. On Tuesday, Fontes was one of those evacuated as the fire closed in on his home and the auto shop across the street. The surrounding wooded area is now a succession of black trunks on a whitish surface of ashes. “This will be the first night I sleep here. Yesterday we got electricity again. He had already had some experience with fires, but this was still a scare,” says this public official.
Since 2017, the dramatic year recorded in the memory of Portugal by the death of 66 people in a fire in Pedrógão Grande, the country has not witnessed such a serious and concentrated wave of forest fires, which has forced the evacuation of 865 people and has injured 190. The Nature and Forest Conservation Institute counts 30,413 hectares affected by the flames until Thursday afternoon. The number of fires between January and the first fortnight of July this year is 6,051, only surpassed in the last five years by the 8,643 registered in the same period of disastrous 2017, when in addition to the impact on human lives, more than half a million were burned. of hectares.
A week has passed since the fires began and the truces are meager. Until 4:00 p.m. this Friday there were six fires out of control, which had mobilized more than 800 troops. Three of the incidents began in the last few hours in the municipalities of Abrantes, Bragança and Guarda. The firefighters had not managed to quell the one that began on Tuesday in Lindoso (Ponte da Barca), in the Peneda-Gerês National Park, on the border with Galicia, as it is an area of difficult access for land resources.
More than a hundred outbreaks in Greece
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Firefighters return for another year to fight in Greece a wave of fires with more than a hundred sources of activity that have begun to devastate the country in recent hours, in particular the one declared in the Cretan port of Rethymno, still out of control by strong winds. Also of concern is the fire declared in the town of Sarótinos, southeast of Athens, whose residents have been evacuated from their homes as a precautionary measure.
In France, more than 1,000 firefighters, supported by tanker planes, have been battling since Tuesday in the southwest of the country to control two fires fueled by scorching heat and strong winds. “The situation is still adverse,” the authorities of the Gironde department said this Friday, where at least 7,300 hectares have burned. Another fire in the surroundings of the town of Tarascon, in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, has devastated another thousand hectares, although this focus has already been stabilized, according to firefighter sources.
In one of the Gironde fires, around the city of Landiras, 4,200 hectares have burned, which has forced the closure of several roads and the evacuation of a thousand people. The other focus, which has burned some 3,100 hectares, is near the Dune of Pilat, the highest sand dune in Europe. On Wednesday, some 6,000 people were evacuated from the campsites from the area, who joined the 4,000 who had already had to leave their places of residence due to the advance of the flames.
The fire has also been primed with Croatia, where on Thursday the authorities were struggling to contain three large fires on the Adriatic coast. High temperatures and strong winds have led to the expansion of the flames in the areas of Zadar and Sibenik.
Meanwhile, Italy’s worst drought in more than 70 years has reduced the country’s longest river, the Po, to little more than a trickle in places. Rome has declared a state of emergency in the territory along the Po, which supports around a third of the country’s agricultural production, in the middle of the hottest July on record since 1800. According to predictions, temperatures will rise still more next week.
Outside of Europe, in Morocco there are four active forest fires in the north of the country, which have already caused at least one death and the burning of 1,600 hectares. More than 1,000 families have been evicted.
The “rule of 30”
The fire that licked the walls of the Portuguese Alexandre Fontes began at noon on Tuesday in Caranguejeira and quickly spread to other towns. He forced to cut several highways and to evacuate neighbors. The origin of the fire has not been disclosed.
Portugal has been adjusting to “the rule of 30” for almost a week, which summarizes the ideal weather conditions for the flames to get out of control (temperatures above 30 degrees, air humidity below 30% and winds above 30 kilometers per hour). , but the main incendiary factor is human action. 70% of forest accidents in Portuguese territory have a human origin, either by negligence or intentionally. The Portuguese Prime Minister, António Costa, goes out every day to appeal to individual responsibility and remember that “fires occur if a human hand, voluntarily or by distraction, causes them.”
One of the latest arrests has been that of a 44-year-old man, surprised on Thursday when he was stirring up a fire in an agricultural area near a residential area in Monçao. Also on Thursday, a court decided to send another alleged arsonist, who had a history, to preventive detention.
But abandonment is also another reason that facilitates the spread of the flames. Alexandre Fontes compares what happened on the perimeter of his farm, where the fire got closer in the areas that had not been cleaned. “In this forest area, the neighbors should be more careful with cleanliness and not only think about the value of the wood to make money,” he points to the door of his house.
A few kilometers from there lives Lucia Guimarães. The day of the fire, that she did not fence her house but that changed the smell and color of the landscape, she got scared. On Thursday she critically reflected on everything she sees in the back room. “There is lobby of fires, companies that charge for putting out fires, the firefighters themselves charge for fire and also economic interests, which are sometimes urban and sometimes lumber”, he reproaches.
When Guimarães made these recriminations, it had not yet come to light that the fire cartel, a criminal network created in Spain to obtain awards for aerial firefighting means, also operates in Portugal with similar practices, as published this Friday by the Portuguese weekly Expresso. Two cartel companies participated in the Portuguese Air Force’s contest to rent four amphibious firefighting planes for 43 million euros in 2020. The winning company then rented two aircraft to the second-place firm. A month ago, Manuel García Castellón, a judge at the National High Court, prosecuted 32 people, including a former minister of the Generalitat, which received gifts in exchange for reserved information or modifications of the contract with these companies. The alteration of the prices of the contest (an extra cost of 236%) is one of the crimes attributed to the network. The investigation that was followed in Portugal by the Prosecutor’s Office was closed due to lack of evidence.
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