The case of fires in Portugal

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Maria João Canadas
Maria João Canadas, Researcher in Fires studies Center

Interview to Maria João Canadas, Researcher in fires studies center (Centro de Estudos Florestais)

Fire propagation

One thing is propagation, other is the ignition. When the question of the fires is transformed in a police case, we are talking about the ignition, how the fire started. The ignitions can be originated by criminal hand, but the most common cases are cases of negligence, like what happened in Pedrogão Grande, where the sparkle was caused by the electricity line that was touching the trees. Now the propagation of the fires occurs because of different factors such as the climate conditions, the slope and the flammable material in the area.


We see that these extended burned areas come together with extreme temperatures. The Americans speak about the three 30´s, more than 30° of temperature, less than 30% of relative humidity and winds over 30 miles per hour. The new thing and what increases the fear that the fires get worst is that we watch the aggravate of extreme phenomens in Portugal, like tornados and hurricanes. When that comes together with high temperatures and drys it´s hard to control. There is not much we can do about the climate, the things that can be done are in a global scale, like taking Trump and politicians like him out of power that think climate change are an invention, but immediately in Portugal there Is not much we can do.


The country is very hilly and sloping and the slope favors the spread of fires. Even in the western zone that is not of high altitude, it is all up´s and down´s, plains we have very few. Nothing can be done about this question as well.

Fuel Matter

We can act in the preventive management of the forest and in the preparation of the population. In other fire-affected settings, such as the United States and Australia, there is increasing concern about housing, building materials, what is in the vicinity of homes, and the existence of places and plans that predict where people can take refuge from the fires. Then there is the question of the communication media and coordination, especially in fire combat. This all has to be conjugated, it is not enough to have prevention, this part of surveillance and communication has to exist and the combat as well. What happens is that until now in Portugal the money has been channeled into the combat because it is more visible and there are several interested lobbies, the airplanes, the fire trucks … What is sought to accentuate is that some of that money that goes for combat, it might be worth going for prevention.


Even with good prevention, all experts say combat is needed. However, in these large fires the combat either acts within the first three hours, or the thing is out of control. This is what happened in Pedrogão and Monchique. Even in California where they were launching retardants by air instead of water over fire (when the fire is so uncontrolled, the water has no effect, before falling vegetation has already evaporated), they failed to control fire. Sometimes earth is thrown over the fire, or fire over the fire: you know that the fire will progress in one direction and you will burn in advance, this is a risky technique because sometimes it is not well known what will be the orientation of the wind.

Coordination and communication

There are more and more people working in the population escape plans. It is known that the areas where the problems have been most severe in Portugal are those where the population is generally older and has restrictions on the level of mobility. This is different from what happens in the United States, where the housing in question are expanded into the forest, in areas not far from cities. In Portugal, on the contrary, the forest has expanded over the houses, in rural areas remote from urban centers. Namely in the area known as Zona do Pinhal, as is the case of Pedrogão, Góis, Alvares, 80% of the area is forest, pine or Eucalyptus. The rural exodus was very immature, people left, the agriculture had no profitability and the forest expanded much.


Colleagues such as foresters work the issue of fires propagation, techniques of reducing fuel load and the land´s mosaics. The part that we evaluate (in the “people and fire” approach) is how this can be implemented, because it is not enough to plan. In Portugal the territory is owned by smallholders, on the contrary, in Germany, for example, 60% of the forest area is public. Being of public, the government can decide how it does, and implements as it wants. In the USA too, that’s why Trump says the same thing that is said here, except that in order to draw other inferences, because most of the forest is public, he says that the public forest is not well managed, it is the will to make everything private. It is not that Portugal is a unique case, in some areas in the US there´s also a lot of areas own by smallholders, like the state of Minnesota, or Massachusetts. The question is how to change forest management and territorial planning as this involves the mobilization of many thousands of landowners. In Portugal plans are ordered, it is said that it should be so or roasted, but it is not really evaluated what it would take for these plans to be implemented. The truth is that there is an economic issue in forest management in Portugal.

Economic question

The species considered best for reducing the risk of fires are the native ones, the oaks, the cork oaks, with exception of the burning pine tree. But for people to cultivate, plant, or care for this forest there is an economic problem. In Portugal, it is currently the cork in the South that gives money and because these owners do not only receive the money from cork but also receive aid from the common agricultural policy, which does not happen in the rest of the forest, so people end up making eucalyptus, the only activity that is gives them some money.


The Pine area has this name because the pinewood area was growing until the 50s / 70s, but from there the pine was replaced by eucalyptus. At first it was believed that it burned less than the pine, it actually burns less because the pine has more resin, but it has an added problem. There are some old descriptions of scholars who were surprised by a novelty that the eucalyptus introduced into the Portuguese landscape, they said “how strange, it is a tree that drops the bark!” And what does that fall bark do? It takes to throw projections of fire at some distance. Even in A1, a highway with three lanes on each side, the fire goes from one side to the other.

Uninterrupted forestal area

What is it that occupies 100% of the Portuguese territory (if we take the residual part corresponding to the built areas, roads, reservoirs, etc.)? Agricultural areas, areas with forest and uncultivated areas (with bushes). Until the 1950s, the agricultural and forestry area was expanded, reducing the areas of weeds, but from the 1950s onwards, with technological change, areas that had previously been occupied with agriculture were abandoned, such as areas of accentuated decline more difficult to mechanized. Thus, the agricultural area was reduced again. Currently you have the agricultural area in less than a third, the forest area is more than a third and you have almost again a third of uncultivated areas. These uncultivated areas do not yield any income and therefore no one will cut bush in these areas because this is not paid for. In the past the animals to feed would graze in the uncultivated areas or even in the forest. There was still something else, people had neither gas nor electricity, and to warm themselves they picked pine cones, firewood, that is, there was no wood accumulated in the forests. Today to clean the woods, just paying someone. Another thing is that such abandonment of agriculture in the most difficult zones led to the disappearance of a certain mosaic between uses of the soil, forest and then agriculture, creating a discontinuity that prevented the advance of fire. So there was a forest with less fuel load, less firewood because the firewood was taken, and then the forest was more interspersed with the plots of agriculture. Today there are areas where there are no interruptions in the area of ​​eucalyptus. What is sought to defend, is to show that it is not with fines, or legislation that changes something. People do not do it, they do not manage because they cannot afford it, the idea of ​​confiscating property is nonsense because those areas that do not give anything, nobody wants them, and there is no profitability. There have to be some conditions for people to do.

Since Pedrogão…

It has changed very little. It has changed more in terms of the perception that people in general have today, they already realize that this is a problem that has come to stay. But the necessary measures have not yet been taken, because this takes time. But it was a very big clash, a great collective trauma, and it has already been realized that serious measures have to be taken.

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