Was the worst day of certain people’s lives, the best business deal for others?

(Photo: Leiria pine forest, 18th April 2018 © Francisca Silva)

In the months of June and October of 2017, Portugal saw its national greenery go down by 10%. Were these fires a natural disaster or a lucrative business?

At around 2.43 pm on Saturday, June 17, the fire alert was given in Pedrógão Grande, Leiria. At this point no one knew the fire was about to consume over 128,494,8 acres worth of national forest. Prior to the fires, between 2000 and 2017, 165 people had died due to wildfires in Portugal.

The new numbers were excruciating as they had doubled: 208 fatalities (105 of which are from the most recent fires). According to the National Institute for Conservation of Nature and Forestry, on October 15th, firefighters battled over 440 fires.

After speaking to several victims, media reporters and firefighters, there was a strong general opinion: the fires were not generated by natural causes as the Criminal Police stated.

What has not been said, is that these forest fires are the by-product of capitalism. Ana Leal, a Portuguese reporter who made an intense investigation on the wildfires, discloses that “the area burned this year was four times higher than the one recorded during the same period of time in Spain. [Wildfires are] a business that goes through million dollar contracts with private companies and the connivance of the State itself.”

The media immediately sought to win audience records by exploiting the tragedy with maximum sensationalism and minimal informational content. This explains how the deadliest forest fires in the country’s history were portrayed as an ‘accident’ with ‘natural causes’, resulting strictly from ‘hostile climatic conditions’ and from big ‘unpredictability,’ not only by the Police but also by the media.

“The Criminal Police, together with the National Police, were able to determine the origin of the fire and everything points very clearly so that they are natural causes. We even found the tree that was struck by lightning,” said Almeida Rodrigues, the National Director of the Criminal Police.

This statement did not seem to satisfy Ana Leal. After conducting her own investigation, she discovered that people had been finding devices in their backyards that could have easily started the fires.

According to eyewitnesses, the airplanes which were supposed to be giving aid to the local firefighters were realising devices which could have immediately lit up in flames and start a fire. Catarina Ricardo, a scout and volunteer at Pedrógão Grande, describes what she saw as what “looked like separate fires. We were seeing new outbreaks of fire rising and there came a time where they just became one.”
On the other hand, Duarte Antão, a victim from both the June and October wildfires, says that, even though he noticed the aerial means, they would not stop to help his village in Lisbon, so he “did not notice any handset thrown into the woods since the focus of attention was another.” However, he agrees that “the companies responsible for the aircrafts” certainly gained some profit from the fires.

(Photo: Leiria pine forest, 18th April 2018 © Francisca Silva)

The aircrafts described by the witnesses were Canadair airplanes. These airplanes were specifically designed to fly in low heights to fight fires. Surprisingly enough, Portugal is the only country in Europe who doesn’t own their own. In 2014, the then Minister of Internal Affairs, Miguel Macedo, announced that Portugal would buy two Canadair Planes and firefighters’ equipment with 11 million euros in community funds. At that time, Miguel Macedo said in a statement that this purchase could take “more than a year,” and it has not happened yet.

The Canadairs used during the fires arrived from Spain, Italy and France. This means that, “the ending could have been different [if Portugal had their own] because the airplanes that came to operate on the fires, arrived too late. These were not national, they had to come from other countries and, as such, they arrived late, and with these fires it is absolutely crucial to tackle them as soon as possible.” confirms Colonel Ilídio Rodrigues, Former Air Resources and Planning Coordinator, and “government after government, nobody had any interest in acquiring the planes. Which is strange,” he adds.

Nonetheless, as mentioned before, Portugal still had other aircrafts to give the firefighters support, but, were they efficient?

Portugal owns, at the moment, six Kamov helicopters, however, Almeida Lopes, firefighter commander of Leiria, explains that “these don’t help much during big fires like the ones we had, they have low capacity of 5,000 litres and by the time the water reaches the ground, it has already evaporated.” Not only that, but the condition in which they were being kept was not the best. From the six 46 million euro helicopters, only three were operational.

Everjets, a private company who had been handed over the maintenance of the three fire-fighting helicopters, had kept them on hold since January for maintenance and has already been fined 5 million euros for non-compliance. Ricardo Dias, President of Everjets, says that Portugal always worked “in a cartelized consortium scheme” and that the state paid 20% to 30% more because the companies got together and “did as they pleased.”

In its own defense, Everjets explains that “the seriousness and reiteration of attitude of the Public Prosecutor [the ANPC] to harm Everjets, by acting and omitting in order to prevent Everjets’ from fully complying with the agreement entered into with the Portuguese State, render the compliance requirement untenable of the contractual obligations by Everjets, when the Public Contractor repeatedly fails to fulfill its obligations and duties.”

The ANPC (National Authority for Civil Protection) had inclusively written several reports confirming how the Kamov helicopters were operational and in excellent conditions when, in fact, they were – and still are – inoperable.

The company still manages 25 light fire-fighting helicopters that are being prosecuted by the state for having signed a contract to operate six Kamovs but only having three in working conditions. Ricardo also says he has already been encouraged to join a consortium of Portuguese companies. This reveals that, for years, companies in the industry used this method to ensure that the state paid far more than the operations actually cost, this means, they were being paid for flying hours that never happened. In 2008, 2,312 flight hours were paid for when the helicopters only ended up flying 1,269 hours.

Pedro Silveira, President of HeliPortugal, a private Portuguese helicopter company which has worked with ANPC in the past, describes these actions as “either incompetent or corrupt,” and that it was “such a stupid idea to let ANPC run helicopters. Aeronautics is a very specific thing; they also wouldn’t use me as a firefighter because I do not understand how those things work.”

As stated in their website, the ANPC is “is a central service, of the direct administration of the State, endowed with administrative and financial autonomy and its own patrimony,” and it is run by the Minister of Internal affairs. Ironically, Constança Urbano de Sousa, who was the Minister up until October 18, did not resist the controversy of the fires, the criticism and the speech from the President and resigned from her position to “preserve [her] personal dignity.”This was not her first attempt on resignation, she had previously filed a request after the June wildfires, but had to stay after the Executive leader refused her appeal.

The role of Minister of Internal affairs was later assigned to Eduardo Cabrita, who has already promised 40 aerial means to combat forest fires for 2018 and 2020, for a total amount of 48,888,667 euros.

(Photo: Leiria pine forest, 18th April 2018 © Francisca Silva)

Months have passed and things seem to have stayed the same. Some rural areas still do not have access to telephone landlines. These are areas that also do not have service coverage, leaving people deprived of communication. This has caused a lot of problems and, sadly, the death of someone.

Ângelo Farinha, a 79-year-old man who used to live in Sertã, woke up in the middle of the night of February 16 to his wife having a heart attack. With no way of communicating with the outside world, Ângelo had to walk 2 miles in order to ask for help. Unfortunately, when he got home with help it was too late.

Since the October fires, Umbelina, Ângelo and Maria’s daughter, asked several times for the telephone to be replaced in her parents’ house, keeping in mind that they were elderly and living in isolation, like many other elderly in the region.

These tragic events leave only one question: does the government see its population as humans or as business opportunities? After the second wave of wildfires, the answer seemed clear to Almeida Lopes, “this last tragedy [the October wildfires] I no longer call it a tragedy, I call it a crime.” Up until today, no one has been held responsible.