Firefighter Rui Rosinha was somewhere worse than hell and back. This September afternoon, still chewing on the sentence that has acquitted the 11 defendants for the worst fire suffered by Portugal in decades (66 dead and 254 injured), he relives those hours of June 17, 2017 that have left him many sequels. Perhaps the least of all is the orthopedic cane that helps you walk. It is worse to remember.
Until that day he was a municipal employee, who dedicated part of his free hours to the volunteer fire service of Pedrógão Grande, in the center of Portugal. He left work at 6:00 p.m. and went to the barracks when he heard the siren. He was sent at the head of a four-man team to Figueiró dos Vinhos. “It was exhausting,” he recalls, “I thought there were few means, but we managed to extinguish it. From there they moved us to Castinheira da Pera. It was the Pedrógão fire, which had come and gone. We entered and noticed that it was gigantic and very violent. On the N236-1 we collided with a car and our car was immobilized”. The five firefighters discovered that the three occupants of the other vehicle were dead and that they were trapped in a place worse than hell: the section of the national road that would later become known as the “highway of death.”
In the old school in Figueira, where the headquarters of the Association of Victims of the Pedrógão Grande Fire (AVIPG) have been installed, Rosinho shares his suspicion: the erratic movement of the convertible that hit them suggests that it was already out of control. In 400 meters of the N236-1, 30 people died from charring (47 on the entire road). “A storm of flames came, an abnormal behavior of the fire with cyclonic winds, everything was burning around us, the trees on both banks touched on the road. We were there from 8:13 p.m. until around 10:00 p.m. when they managed to rescue us. For us it took years. I had time to think about many things, I thought we would not be saved because we suffered serious injuries from smoke poisoning and third-degree burns”, he revives a few kilometers from the asphalt island that allowed them to survive. Firefighter Gonçalo Fernando Correia Conceiçao died. Rui Rosinha went from that hell to a coma. He was about to be the 67th victim. Finally, after multiple organ failure, six months in hospitals and fifteen surgeries, he recovered and returned to a life that was no longer what it was before.
Why that fire never seen? An unusual weather phenomenon occurred (a “outflow convective” consisting of the propagation by “radiation, convection and mass transport of incandescent materials”, says the sentence) that for the court is the sole cause of everything that happened later and that burned 45,328 hectares in a few hours. But the fire never seen (known as “convective or hungry”) was helped by successive human negligence. The lack of cleaning the contours of houses and roads, despite being a legal obligation, turned the area into a gigantic fuel depot. Communications between the emergency devices failed and there was a lack of coordination of the rescue means. The commander of relief operations neglected the catastrophe to give 11 “briefings” to ministers and mayors.
“The greater the loss, the greater the feeling of impunity that this sentence leaves behind. We are in shock. There was a singular phenomenon, but the country would have to be prepared in another way. They abandoned us and let us die”, says Dina Duarte, the president of the AVIPG. Paradoxically, six victims who appeared in the process to request greater compensation (150,000 euros were paid for each deceased and 80,000 for each injured with money from solidarity donations) will have to pay the costs. Another 16 showed up just to demand justice.
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“Personally, I have nothing against any of the 11 defendants,” says Rosinha, “but it would be positive for justice in Portugal if the entire investigation were exhausted and there was no sense of impunity. This whole region is very affected, we are all victims of this.” He sees a clear relationship between the forest chaos that does not respect seat belts and the impact of the 2017 fires. This summer’s wave, moreover, has once again reminded us of what happened.
What Rosinha says with the emotional charge of the survivor, is also said in the scientific report on the fire prepared by a team led by Domingos Xavier Viegas, a professor at the University of Coimbra and one of the leading European specialists in forest fires. “The lack of cleanliness around the roads made it easy for many people to be trapped in full flight by the smoke and radiation from the fire, by the flames of the surrounding vegetation and even fallen trees on the roads. Most of the victims died while trying to flee by car on the road, “says the report.
The Viegas team identified the contact between a medium-voltage power line belonging to the EDP company and the vegetation as the source of the most serious incident. “This situation constitutes poor fuel management in the protection strip of the line by the managing entity,” they point out in the text. Despite the fact that the Judicial Police and the National Republican Guard also endorsed the hypothesis of the electric shock, the Leiria court decided to dismiss it for lack of “full and direct evidence.” The two EDP employees were acquitted, as were the mayors and employees of the national highway maintenance company.
“Many things were not fatalities and could have been avoided,” says Domingos Xavier Viegas by phone. “I am not satisfied with the sentence, which surprised me a lot, also because of the equal treatment for all the accused. Although I consider that the fire commander could not be held responsible [Augusto Arnaut]there are other entities that should be held accountable because they could have done more to reduce the impact of what happened”, he adds.
People fled their houses to save themselves and in the end their houses were saved and they were not. Only four people out of 66 died inside their home. “A large-scale rescue operation was not carried out to go for the wounded and take them to safe places. We are convinced that some deaths and a lot of suffering could have been avoided if this aid had been faster and better organized”, they maintain in the report. One of Pedrógão’s lessons, summarizes Dina Duarte, is that “new houses are safe and new cars, which are blocked in certain circumstances, are not.”
Portugal is the European country with the most eucalyptus trees, which occupy more than 856,000 hectares (9% of its territory). Although the Government announced a brake on its expansion after the 2017 fires, it has again authorized new plantations. The masses often arrive at the doors of homes in the interior of the country, increasingly depopulated and abandoned by public policies. Where once there were safety belts of farmland, there are now biofuels. “Since 2006, the law provides for a distance of 100 meters from trees around houses and 10 meters from roads, but it was not complied with. This summer’s fires show that they are from another generation, with an unthinkable level of destruction, but they evolve differently in a clean territory. If Pedrógão had been cleaned up before 2017, would so many people have died?” questions Dina Duarte.
In a curve of the road of death there are now earthworks to build a large memorial in honor of the victims. The monument will be gigantic. However, the tribute that the survivors want is that there is no impunity and that it is not repeated. That the Portuguese saying is not fulfilled To blame I will die single.
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