Wildfires: 2023 set to be “tougher year than 2022”

The warning has come from Portugal’s Internal Administration Minister: 2023 is shaping up to be a more difficult year in terms of wildfires than 2022.

“From the conditions we are observing, 2023 will be a more demanding year in terms of wildfires because of the weather, drought, and mostly the winds” that blow in the Algarve, said José Luis Carneiro at ALGARSAFE’23, a civil protection fair held in Portimão last weekend.

As the minister explained, the average number of wildfires since January has been “very high”, with 64% being caused by “negligence” during what should have been controlled burns.

Landowners seeking to clear their land by using controlled burns should do so safely and with the assistance of municipal civil protection services and firefighters, Carneiro added.

While financing for the country’s firefighting programme (Dispositivo Especial de Combate a Incêndios Rurais, or DECIR) has been increasing every year, the minister stressed that there are “limits” as to what it can do.

With more than €70 million available, around 50% is going into prevention and the other 50% is used to fight wildfires. The key to fighting the scourge of wildfires, however, is in prevention, the minister added, stressing that the Ministry of Environment has been doing everything it can to boost prevention mechanisms.

2022 went down as a “very challenging year” in terms of wildfires, with weather conditions being ‘ideal’ for the outbreak and spread of blazes.

Some parts of the country registered temperatures as high as 47ºC, humidity below 10% (which is already being registered in the Algarve) and winds which exceeded 60km per hour on some days, “significantly increasing the risk of fires”.

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Despite the difficult circumstances, José Luis Carneiro believes Portugal’s firefighting services proved themselves by bringing around 90% of wildfires under control in 90 minutes and ensuring that no more than one hectare was burnt in 80% of the blazes.

According to the minister, this shows “efficacy” in Portugal’s firefighting response, “particularly” during the initial phase.

However, 10% of the fires continued to rage on after 90 minutes, having affected more than one hectare of land. This prompted authorities to boost their firefighting efforts for 2023 with firefighting specialities who will help teams respond to “more complex fires”.

José Luís Carneiro added that regional firefighting teams will be better prepared to respond “more quickly and efficiently” to wildfires, in the same manner in which the country’s firefighting efforts were improved upon following the devastating fires of 2017 – including the tragic wildfire of Pedrógão Grande, which killed 66 people, injured 253 and destroyed around 53,000 hectares of land.

With Portugal continuing to be blighted by drought, the minister guaranteed that this will not affect the country’s firefighting efforts nor the supply of firefighting aircraft in the Algarve.

He was also asked whether the government is considering declaring State of Calamity due to the situation of drought in the Algarve and Alentejo, having answered that his focus is on wildfire prevention and combat and that such a decision would have to be made in conjunction with European authorities.

Two Fireboss planes to be stationed at Portimão aerodrome

Two Fireboss air tankers are to be stationed at all times at the Alvor aerodrome in Portimão between June 1 and October 15 as part of the country’s firefighting programme DECIR.

Regional civil protection commander Vítor Vaz Pinto made the announcement at the ALGARSAFE event in Portimão last weekend, stressing that the measure was taken based on the forecasts of an “extremely complex summer” in terms of firefighting.

This will be the first time that these two planes will be stationed in the Algarve, which will provide a “great contribution” to the efficiency of the region’s firefighting system, said Vaz Pinto, adding that the closest air tankers used to be stationed in Beja, where two other aircraft will also be stationed and ready to intervene “when necessary”.

The civil protection boss also announced that 11 new “permanent intervention teams” will also be on call at the fire stations of Portimão, Silves, Lagoa, Albufeira, Monchique, Aljezur, Faro-Cruz-Lusa, São Brás de Alportel, Vila Real de Santo António and Castro Marim.

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In total, the Algarve will have seven helicopters and four planes ready to tackle any wildfires that may break out in the region.

Vaz Pinto also had a more realistic take on the region’s drought, admitting that it may impair firefighting efforts as planes will have more difficult refilling their tanks.

In terms of wildfire surveillance, there are 12 surveillance points set up which will be manned until at least November 4, Vaz Pinto said, adding that there are also seven surveillance teams consisting of 19 people, as well as two teams from the National Corps of Forest Agents.

This year, there will be 21 “first intervention” teams made up of 100 operatives and 382 firefighters supported by 89 vehicles, as well as two “combat groups” which will be deployed if needed.

During the presentation of DECIR, a protocol was also signed granting over €621,000 to the Algarve’s 16 firefighter corporations, as well as an additional €23 per day bonus paid to firefighters who will now receive €87.2 for every 24 hours of service.

Air Force to hire “wider range of aircraft types to fight wildfires”

With the wildfire risks this summer acknowledged as being more challenging than they were last year, the Air Force has been authorised to hire a wider range of aircraft types than originally envisaged.

The ministry of defence explains this is largely due to the scarcity of light helicopters and heavy ‘water bomber’ aircraft available on the European market.

Thus, this summer, DECIR (Special Unit for Combating Rural Fires) needs to improvise.

According to the defence ministry, “it is only a matter of extending the types of aircraft that can be hired”.

The new authorisation won’t change the amount of money available (€113.8 million has been approved for the rental of aerial firefighting means for the period 2023-2025).

DECIR is counting on 34 aerial resources for the period May 15-31, “but six less than expected are operational”, explains Lusa.

From June 1 to September 30, DECIR should reach 72 air assets – 12 more than in previous years – but this number has not yet been achieved, mainly due to the ‘scarcities on the market’.

Focus now is on switching to ‘medium helicopters’ (to make up for the lack of light ones available) and two heavy helicopters, to make up for the impossibility of securing the two water-bombing Canadairs that the Air Force hoped for.

According to a source, the price for hiring Canadairs this year was “twice as high as expected”.

While replacement aircraft are being actively sought, José Luís Carneiro, minister for internal administration, has explained that “weather conditions, the drought and above all the wind in the Algarve region” mean that the summer of 2023 “will be a more demanding year from the point of view of forest fires”.

Original article written by Beatriz Maio for Barlavento newspaper

Portugal Resident