On an evening when the death of a one-month-old baby was confirmed as one of the 38 who perished in the weekend’s fires, with seven people still unaccounted for, the Viegas Report has been released, blaming an electrical cable for the devastating fire in Pedrógão Grande this June.
The independent technical report on Pedrógão Grande, ordered by the Government, arrived on Monday afternoon at the Ministry of Internal Administration.
The report’s coordinator, Domingos Xavier Viegas, said that the document points out the cause of the main fire at Pedrógão Grande was a medium-tension electrical cable that had been poorly maintained as vegetation had been allowed to grow so high that there was contact between the cable and the combustible material.
The clearing of the area below the cable, the responsibility of EDP according to the Observador news service, was not carried out with due care and there will have been contacts between the cable and the vegetation," explained Viegas.
Domingos Xavier Viegas also pointed out flaws "in the perception of the severity of the fire, in the initial attack, in the way it was approached, in the way firefighting resources were arranged."
At the entrance to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, where Viegas delivered the report into the series of fires at Pedrógão Grande and nearby parishes on June 17, the professor from the University of Coimbra, said that "there are many conclusions and many lessons we have to learn from this fire, one of which is, that it can be repeated."
The report was written before the weekend’s fires where conditions indeed were repeated, with the death of 38 people adding to the toll of 65 at Pedrógão Grande.
Xavier Viegas said that,"Unfortunately yesterday and today we saw that the country is vulnerable to this kind of situation."
"There is a lot that has to be done," added the professor, "including improving rural areas and people's living conditions, establishing a better maintenance of forest areas by cutting back vegetation."
In the report from the Centre for the Study of Forest Fires, both the available resources and the operational commander "were not sufficient to control the fire that broke out at 3:00 p.m. on June 17 in Escalos Fundeiros, Pedrógão Grande."
The report concludes that 65 people died in the fire, not the official figure of 64 as it included the death a woman run over and killed as she fled the fire.
The Viegas Report, which has been published on the Government website, also concludes that the events of mid-June made it clear that the emergency services set-up "is not prepared" to respond to such a high number of casualties and that front line burns treatment is not adequate.
"Almost all of the victims died when they tried to escape by car on the road and 30 people alone were killed in a 400-metre stretch of EN-236-1," the document reads, adding that "Only four of the 65 dead of this fire were killed in the homes. They all had some mobility or health problems."
The report also points out that the radio and telephone communications system (SIRESP) "suffered a general failure throughout the region due to inherent limitations of the system, user overload or poor utilisation.”
The report also pointed out that the parishes of Pedrógão Grande and Castanheira de Pêra did not have a Municipal Fire Protection Plan validated by the Institute of Nature Conservation and Forests.
"This fact inhibited these parishes from receiving funding in the past few years to promote preventive actions."
The report also advises calling a halt to the 'jobs for the boys' culture at the National Civil Protection Authority and at the fire department, arguing that the Institute of Nature Conservation and Forests should have a greater presence and a more effective participation in the management of the forest fire problem.
"Among other recommendations is the creation of a National Forest Fire Management Programme that involves the different entities of civil society and the State.”
The inconvenient truth of an electrical cable sparking off the fire at Pedrógão Grande, the conclusion arrived at earlier by the head of the Bombeiros league, Jaime Marta Soares, makes for difficult reading in a government that has preferred to blame a lightning strike - and even managed to find ‘the tree that was hit by lightning.’
The Prime Minister spoke to the nation this evening, saying that things can never be the same and promising a shake-up of Portugal’s response mechanisms and forestry management, blaming the situation on "decades of neglect" that have contributed to the situation that the country is in.