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Facing the flames: How Portugal’s interior is preparing for the fires ahead

facing flamesPortugal is one of the countries in Europe most threatened by wildfires, and as the climate changes, the government has decided that it wants to be prepared. Part of that motivation comes in the wake of the summer of 2017, one of the worst fire seasons in the country's living memory. A record area of over 500 thousand hectares burned; hundreds of homes were lost; and over a hundred people died.

The area around the municipality of Pedrógão Grande still bears the scars of the fires that ripped through the area. Acres of burned trees appear randomly as you drive the rural roads, and stretch from the asphalt to the horizon. Thirty of those who died were killed in their cars along one stretch of road as they attempted to flee. It's not something that people here have forgotten, two years later.

Being prepared is a big task to undertake. After 2017, the Portuguese government legislated that trees and brush must be cleared from roads, to create a "buffer zone" of 10 metres on either side, using the tarmac to slow the progress of the blaze — and to create a safer road if people need to escape, something that was desperately needed three years ago.

However, Portugal has the highest percentage of privately owned land in the European Union at 97 per cent, and land is often left to grow wild. It can be difficult to even identify the owners, and even moreso to enforce fines for overgrowth. Clearing the fuel makes for slower-moving fires, which are more easily controlled.

So, when the owners don’t manage the land, the newly-created rural fire service, the AGIF, is stepping in. They deploy chainsaw-wielding teams to chop down the excess growth, in particular the flourishing eucalyptus which burns well and is thus a main culprit in the rapid propagation of forest fires.

The government is also investing in even lower-tech solutions. A pilot programme was launched to pay for people to work as shepherds in vulnerable areas, with a specific goal in mind; get the goats to clear low-lying shrubs and plants.

Additionally, the government are hoping to use fire to fight fire. “Fire is a good employee, and for sure during the summer a bad boss. So we need to use it wisely during the winter time,” says Tiago Oliveira, a scientific expert in wildfires and now the chief of the Portuguese Rural Fire Service.

His teams light up areas of the countryside in what is known as a prescribed burn, turning tinderbox zones into cinders, creating fire breaks which will halt the flames in fire season. But they can only burn when the landowners agree to it, meaning his job is half fire chief, half public relations guru. Explaining how fire can be a good thing is often a challenge.

Mr. Oliveira says it’s a matter of when, not if, Portugal will burn again. But if the country can adapt and be prepared for the new conditions it faces, it stands a better chance of saving both homes and lives.

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