The Monchique Fire of 2018 is 'dominated but not extinct'

FireOverMonchoqueStarting in the afternoon of Friday 3rd August, in a forested area to the north of the hillside town of Monchique, the Algarve's worst fire of 2018 spread rapidly through uncleared scrub and tightly packed eucalyptus forests.

Blistering heat, low humidity and gusting winds ensured the fire soon was out of control and heading for villages such as Alferce and, to the horror of the authorities, the municipal capital.

The fire leapt over the hills from the north to the more populated south side. International media started to pick up names: Caldas dea Monchique, the famous water bottling plant, the Macdonald hotel. Local media realised that settlements, hamlets and individual farms was where the danger lay - farmers, mostly elderly, were rapidly stripped of their livelihoods, animals, trees, crops and buildings, all consumed by the flames.

The front-line helicopters fighting the fire by day were found to be using water, rather than a foam retardant mix. This was on "cost grounds" - an error in parsimon where money should have been spent. This meant that much of the water dumped on the fire turned to steam before hitting the ground.

The larger aircraft did have retardant foam but the lack of heavy duty help from Canadair aircraft hampered the fight.

Retardant also stops reignition in treated areas and it was this reignition process that led to an announcement on Monday 6th August that the fire was “95% dominated” – a statement that Tavira mayor and Chairman of the District Commission for Civil Protection, Jorge Botelho, came to regret at that night the fire turned into a beast, tearing cross the forests deep into Silves council’s area and across to Rasmalho in the Portimão municipality.

The District Commander for Relief Operations, Vítor Vaz Pinto, was thanked and replaced as the government decided to upgrade the fire to national status by appointing the National Commander of Civil Protection, Duarte da Costa, to run things from Tuesday onwards.

More men and machines were thrown at the spreading inferno with Wednesday afternoon seeing the fire rapidly spread along the Silves valley towards Messines and creating a pall of smoke that blocked out the sun, rained ash across the centre of the region and ensured international media coverage that part of the Algarve was alight.

In fact the fire was nearly at an end, work in the hills at Fóia and firefighting along the valleys was the last big push with fire crews exhausted, homes burnt and evacuees terrified they would have no home to return to.

Travel warnings started to be issued on Thursday, only a day before the enormous fire - it has consumed an estimated 27,000 hectares - could be categorised as ‘dominated.'

The miracle is that nobody has died. There are plenty of injuries to be reported, 22 firefighters from a tally of 41 casualties, but deaths were avoided, allowing flippant remarks from the Prime Minister to cause local offence but not become a resignation issue.

The Civil Defence website on Friday morning showed the fire as ‘dominated’ but firefighting teams will be in place for days to come to pounce on any areas where the fire reignites within its 100 kilometre girth.

Many of those returning to their Monchique hillside farms and houses will have no electricity, no phone lines, no water - but a great view as greenery has been consumed. Trees now stand in charred, spindly testament to the inferno and hitherto invisible neighbouring farms stand out against blackened hillsides.

The Mayor of Monchique, Rui André, estimates losses at €10 million but this round figure certainly will be exceeded. The government has not announced a compensation fund.

The fire may show officially as being 'dominated' but the air temperature is rising and tension remains high.

The aftermath and debriefing will highlight areas of operational weakness, some over-zealous GNR, fire-engines in the wrong place at the wrong time - and certainly the lack of airborne foam retardants - but the real problem is eucalyptus, thousands and thousands of hectares of highly flammable material packed densely, sucking water from the land just waiting for someone with a lighter to have some fun or a paid arsonist to set light to a forest to allow the pulp industry to buy fire-damaged trees at lower prices.

As has been pointed out before in algarvedailynews.com, (HERE) the pulp and paper company Celtejo is owned by Altri, controlled by Paulo Jorge dos Santos Fernandes, who also owns Cofina which runs titles including Jornal de Negocios, Record, Correio da Manha, and Sábado – not the sort of media that any government wants to upset, especially with an election coming up next year. The pulp and paper industry has huge influence, look at Celtejo's pollution of the Tejo that has been going on for years until recently highlighted by photogenic foam, and it is this link that needs to be broken.

The mass replanting of eucalyptus after the last Monchique fires in 2003 and 2004, and the unprecedented rush to replant eucalyptus in the period between the 2017 Pedrógao Grande fire and the January 2018 ban on planting, means that the country is groaning under the weight of this inflammable resource.

Unless the government takes the risk seriously, and it has not done so to date, these fires will continue and these words will be repeated, time and time again until those elected to protect the public, the government’s primary responsibility, start doing so.

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