There was a soft warning in late March when the combination of light drought and several consecutive hot days made way for a few small wildfires. An event quite unusual early in the Spring.
The mild Spring and early Summer avoided the “ignitions,” but during July’s second half, massive wildfires reappeared in Portugal. The central Portugal fire of Mação was the biggest and the one with most political implications, with members of the central government trading accusations with the local Town Hall president and other local representatives.
In Algarve, there were also some occurrences, namely in Cachopo (Tavira municipality) and Silves. In fact, the vast majority of occurrences are small ones that are quickly handled by the firefighters; the few that get out of control are those who become more dangerous and costly.
Government is nervous
The cranky reaction of Prime-Minister António Costa and Home Secretary equivalent Eduardo Cabrita can be explained for the timing. We’re just two and a half months away from regular general elections. Although the ruling Socialist Party is leading the polls comfortably, you can never be sure what might turn the voters’ intentions around. Right now, wildfires are deemed as a very sensible matter, given the tragedies that happened in 2017. Although the government was able to navigate past it, a repetition could be quite costly on election day.
A work for decades
It’s unclear, and a matter for political debate, if the dimension of the wildfire of Mação can be attributed to failures of management of the current government. Given that the Mação municipality was an example of measures taken regarding wildfire protection (after the fires of 2003 and 2017), something likely failed from the central government side.
But regardless of that, the problems with the Portuguese forests will be around for the next couple of decades. The countryside faces several challenges, namely rural depopulation, and the way the rural landscape is managed needs to change profoundly and quickly. The country is still shocked by the 2017 June and October tragedies, so there will be political pressure over this – not only in wildfire prevention but also in forest management. It’s too early to get lasting results. And climate change makes this all the more difficult and urgent, as the recent Arctic wildfires are showing.