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“To fight fires effectively we must give power to the people”, says National Fire Chief

In recent years, forest fires have become an increasingly important issue for the government to combat. It is not simply a problem for the Algarve either, it is a countrywide epidemic.

Fire scientists believe that the best strategy lies in a full-time approach to firefighting—unlike the bombeiros’ seasonal approach—with firefighters building and maintaining fire lines throughout the year in order to be prepared when they break out, as well as keeping development out of established fire lanes.

However this problem doesn’t have a simple solution. It cannot be solved without the evolution of the way the population treat the rural landscape, so that people value the forest once again and have a reason to defend the land from fire. Be it for pasturing sheep and goats, beekeeping, tourism, or small-scale biomass energy generation, according to national fire chief Tiago Oliveira.

This is in no way as straightforward as buying new planes and helicopters, he admits. “No one was ever called a hero for averting a crisis before it happened.” Still, he believes the model of so-called “polycentric governance”, which involves giving local people the power and resources to solve their fire problems locally, is the only long-term way for regions such as the Algarve to manage their overwhelming fire risk—a risk that is moving north into the unprepared lands of the rest of Europe.

“We need to step away from a top-down approach,” clarified the fire chief. “For too long, the people of the countryside have relied on centralized state authority, and on the beloved volunteer firefighters, to stop the wildfire problem. If it can use the fire danger to inspire a recolonization of its rural hinterlands, Portugal can be the case study for the rest of Europe,” he adds. However, this theoretical model he proposes will certainly have difficulties if the government chooses to implement it.

Furthermore, there is a time-bomb ticking in the background. Any changes that come from Lisbon will take time to penetrate the countryside, which is made up of locations where the fire risk is most concentrated, and where burnt trees remaining sticking up on empty hills like worn-out toothbrushes.

One archetypal impact of the generations of neglect regions such as the Algarve’s interior have faced by the central government is that Lisbon simply doesn’t know how to manage the bulk of the land which is largely deserted, as they don’t know who owns it. This makes establishing land policy a minefield, though a national survey is ongoing.

According to Filipa Rodriguez, former bombeira, the country’s interior is weaker and more demoralized than it has ever been.

Two years after the 2017 fires, and only one year after last year’s Monchique fires, the past experiences have left many firefighters both physically and mentally scarred. “We had never failed before,” she says in her home in Castaneiras do Pera. “Now I see fire, and I start to tremble. We live with the consequences of what happened—the people we lost—every day.”

It becomes easy, she says, to abandon land that others are already abandoning. The firefighter doesn’t want to leave, but with a limited local economy, a young daughter, and a great risk of fire, she is not sure how she can stay. Most of her friends live in Lisbon, whilst their family lands become overgrown, only increasing fire risk.

Every day firefighters watch the eucalyptus trees grow, most of the time unchecked and illegal, bare meters from towns and villages that simply do not have the resources to prevent fires from sparking.