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Portugal counts on drones to bolster defences against wildfires during pandemic

37wildfire dronePortugal will use long-range drones and other surveillance means to reinforce the monitoring of summer wildfires, officials said on Monday, responding to concerns over the government’s readiness to tackle forest blazes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

European Union data shows Portugal is one of the bloc’s worst-hit countries by fires every year. One of the root causes of its frequent wildfires is that vast swathes of the interior are deserted, as people have left to live in cities or abroad, and the job of clearing trees and bushes is ignored, thus creating a fire risk.

Municipalities and firefighters say that there is an additional risk in the form of the current viral outbreak, which could have an effect on the authorities’ capacity to effectively manage wildfire prevention. Officials said last month that around 100 firefighters had been infected by the novel coronavirus.

Environment Minister Joao Matos Fernandes said that 12 drones, each with a range of 100 km and capable of flying for up to eight hours to spot wildfires, would be deployed in regions of high fire risk, such as the Algarve, from the end of June, when higher temperatures make fires more likely.

Matos Fernandes, however, said that for now at least, the coronavirus outbreak is unlikely to have any notable impact on the number of firefighters ready to tackle forest fires.

“Firefighters have prepared themselves to reduce their risk of contagion but we cannot say a decrease in human resources won’t happen,” Matos Fernandes told a news conference. “That’s why we have decided to reinforce vigilance.”

In June last year major wildfires in central Portugal burned about 8,500 hectares, destroying houses and forcing authorities to evacuate villagers, who said there were not enough firefighters and resources to combat the flames. In June 2017, a huge wildfire near the town of Pedrogao Grande caused the deadliest disaster in modern Portuguese history, killing 64 people and injuring more than 250.

Defence Minister Joao Cravinho said on Friday that the army would send soldiers to support residents and firefighters during the wildfire season if needed.

There are also concerns about delays in land clearing, which is essential to prevent or slow down wildfires. A survey by services platform Fixando of 600 land clearing providers showed 77% experienced a drop in demand due to COVID-19 worries and the government’s lockdown measures.