Portugal has a catastrophic amount of fuel in its forests
Portugal’s biggest newspaper, Diário de Noticias, recently interviewed Trevor Wilson on the country’s fire risks.
A team of South African experts recently visited Portugal on invitation by Tiago Oliveira, President of the Mission Structure for the Management of Rural Fire. Local newspaper, Diário de Noticias, interviewed the head of the team, Trevor Wilson, who was alarmed by what he saw: “If nothing is done, it can burn all over again.
What was the purpose of your visit to Portugal?
Our team operates under Working on Fire International , a company specialising in integrated wildfire management solutions. The visit was part of an international fire management sharing program. The reason is simple, the science and behaviour of fire is exactly the same throughout the world. The only difference around the world is the fact that people speak different languages, but the lessons learned in fire behaviour is the same, therefore, break language barriers and share the lessons learnt. Worldwide, we should try not to repeat mistakes around the topic of fire, which might cause someone’s life. Therefore, our visit is important, to share our experience regarding fire, but also to learn more.
What did you conclude about the situation in Portugal at this time, given the tragedy of last year?
Undoubtedly, the Portuguese situation is complex. It is not global warming or climate change that causes the big fires. It’s the fuel that’s available on the land to burn, and that’s one of the lessons the world is learning this year. California burned, Montana, Sweden, Greece, Portugal, Indonesia and, South Africa, burned all at the same time. And the common denominator in all of these countries was not fire behaviour or the fact that it was very dry, but the amount of fuel on the ground which was ready to burn. And this has its origin in a large-scale bias according to which all fire is evil. One sees a fire and immediately puts it out because it is perceived as bad, but nature works differently as it is poised to burn. There are many species that are adapted to the fire and seek it to develop, to maintain and to make the seeds germinate.
Is it important to clean the vegetation, one of the measures that the government has promoted most this year?
Yes, but not just at ground level. Every fuel type needs defensible space, space from which to fight a fire from. Lack of defensible space, or fire breaks, means that the fire fighters just cannot get into the area to fight the fire.
And did you see much forest “disorganisation” in Portugal?
Yes, all over the country there are years and years of accumulated fuel, and this need to be managed.
Does this only happen in Portugal?
I’d loved to say that Portugal is special – and it is in many ways – but in this matter they are not unique. Some challenges are that you have a very complex land- use system, Portugal has many small roads with only one entrance and one exit, and this makes it difficult to access certain areas. It also poses a huge risk if someone gets caught in the middle of a fire and there is no escape route.
What does Portugal need to do more, to prevent large-scale fires?
What is lacking is even large-scale fuel management. Anyone responsible for an area must be focused on that managing that land. This includes to burn the vegetation more, change it, cut it, do whatever it takes to reduce the fuel loads. You can even make space in the trees and allow for the access of the firemen to fight the fires when they happen occur.
Is there always a great possibility of a repeat of such big fires after what Portugal experienced in 2017, or at least in relation to the great size of the burnt area?
Yes. Portugal has a catastrophic amount of fuel in a large majority of its fuel landscapes which makes it a complex situation. Something has must be done. It is a complex situation. If nothing is done, it can very easily burn all over again.
If this problem is identified, why do you think it is not resolved?
One of the reasons is the prejudice Trevor has already mentioned about the exclusion of fire. Fire existed many years before mankind and will continue long after mankind. But mankind has the opportunity now to at least control fires and learn and share from the lessons of previous fires. High fuel loads are a global problem, but if we don’t manage our fuel loads, wildfires have the chance of recurring.
Do you only fight fire with fire?
No, not always. In the contrary, at this point the amount of fuel is so high in Portugal, that one can’t risk using fire to manage fuel loads, it’s too dangerous. One first needs to do clean-ups and then one can make use of controlled burns.
Apart from high fuel loads, what other problems have you experienced in Portugal?
According to our knowledge, Portugal’s firefighters have good training and training, great resources, field personnel and aircraft. It’s all brilliant. However, gently stated, sometimes resources can be put to use more efficiently. It is not complicated to fight fires, but to manage a fire is a whole different science. In the triangle that constitutes fire – heat, oxygen and fuel – the only side we can influence is that of fuel. It is the only part of the triangle on which one can have direct control over. And if that is the case, then why don’t we do it? We know fuel is going to burn, and when it does it’s always an emergency, but maybe it doesn’t have to be. It may be hot, it may be dry, but if there is no fuel, it won’t burn. Of course, the primary objective is to stop the ignition of unwanted wildfires, but that is not always possible.
What do you foresee for the future in Portugal on this issue?
Unless we start managing high fuel loads properly and proactively, more catastrophic fires might occur again.
What was the biggest surprise of what you saw this month?
The speed with which the fuel has increased since the last time the Working on Fire team was here in November 2017. What can be done? Reduce fuel. Our team, who was in the Pedrógão area and in Monchique saw electricity poles without fuel load management under the power line servitude. This may have been a cause of one of the fires.
And good work has been done, but there must be continuity. If it does not, the problem even gets worse. The unwanted seed may even germinate faster after being disturbed.
Are there any countries that are a good example of fire prevention?
All countries have a mix of good and challenging areas. Here in Portugal, for example, in Sintra, in the area managed by Monte da Lua (Monte da Lua Parks), they are doing an incredible job in fuel management. We know that it is not an easy job to do all over the country, but it is necessary to start somewhere, with a strategic goal of landscape change. People must know that you cannot blame climate change. It’s too late for that.