Portugal PM calls for explanations as forest fires rage

2017-06-20 20:14
A house that escaped the recent forest fires stands out against the burnt ground in Serra do Macario in central Portugal. (Armando Franca, AP)

A house that escaped the recent forest fires stands out against the burnt ground in Serra do Macario in central Portugal. (Armando Franca, AP)

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Pedrgo Grande - Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa on Tuesday led calls to know why a highway now dubbed the "road of death" -  where most of the 64 victims of a giant forest fire died - had not been blocked off, as questions mounted over the disaster management response.

More than 1 000 firefighters still battled to control the flames which broke out in the central Pedrogao Grande region over the weekend and spread at breakneck speed to neighbouring areas.

Trapped by flames

Costa sought "immediate explanations" why the N236 highway "had not been closed to traffic" and why it had been signalled by gendarmes as an alternative route after a nearby road had been sealed off, according to the Lusa national news agency.

Forty-seven of the 64 forest fire victims died on the N236 which has been branded the "road of death" or the "road of hell" by the local media. Thirty of them burned to death in their cars, trapped by the flames.

A survivor told Portuguese television that gendarmes directed them to the N236 as an alternative to the nearby IC8 route which had been closed and which the gendarmes used themselves.

"When we arrived at the IC8, they told us we couldn't pass and directed us towards the N236. We thought that the road was safe but it wasn't," said a survivor, Maria de Fatima.

"We couldn't see anything...we couldn't even see the road...just the flames and the pine trees falling on the road," she said.

Emergency planning

Costa also wanted explanations into why the emergency services communications network had been interrupted amid media reports that the scorching heat had damaged antennae.

The blaze around Pedrogao Grande was expected to be under control shortly, said civil protection chief Vitor Vaz Pinto on Tuesday.

As water-bombing planes made regular passes over the flames, there were growing suggestions that forestry practices and outdated emergency planning might have contributed to the disaster.

Some people in the hamlets scattered through this rural region were not happy with the response of the emergency services.

Father Jose Gomes, the priest in Figueiro dos Vinhos, said that some locals had "lacked the support of the firefighters and sometimes even water.

"There is a spirit of revolt towards the emergency services," he said.

Serious state

Pensioner Jose Antonio Jesus Marques said he had been told on Saturday that the fire was about eight kilometres away from his home in Carreira.

"I went to see it and in five minutes the fire was about 800m from my house," the 66-year-old said.

"The police came and that's the only thing we saw. Not a single firefighter".

An additional 157 people were listed as injured, the emergency services said. They included seven people in a serious state, one of them a child.

On Tuesday, 1 150 firefighters and nearly 400 vehicles were still battling the fires, helped from the air by water-bombing planes including some sent from France, Italy and Spain.

Media reports suggested that the fire plan had not been revised for four years and that there had been communications problems while trying to contain the blaze.

Fewer people clearing brush

Portugal's Publico newspaper reported that while the fire plan was meant to be revised every two years, in recent years lawmakers had not considered it a priority.

Climate change expert Joao Camargo pointed to the industrial-scale planting of eucalyptus, which is highly inflammable, in comments to Publico.

"These last decades, we have seen a rise in the frequency of forest fires" in Portugal, more than in Mediterranean countries, he said.

The emptying out of the countryside as people leave for more urban areas also meant that there were fewer people to clear the brush that has fed the fires.

Nearly 26 000ha of forest have already been destroyed by the fires, according to the European Forest Fire Information System.

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