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Cablegate: Portugal's 2006 Forest Fire Season: Better Than

VZCZCXRO2794
RR RUEHAG RUEHDF RUEHIK RUEHLZ
DE RUEHLI #1554/01 2081227
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 271227Z JUL 06
FM AMEMBASSY LISBON
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 5021
INFO RUCNMEM/EU MEMBER STATES
RUEHRC/USDA FAS WASHDC

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 LISBON 001554

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

USDA FOREST SERVICE FOR DALE DAGUE

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: SENV EAID EU PO
SUBJECT: PORTUGAL'S 2006 FOREST FIRE SEASON: BETTER THAN
2005 BUT SUMMER NOT OVER YET

REF: A) 05 LISBON 1467 B) 04 LISBON 1278

SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED. NOT FOR INTERNET DISTRIBUTION.

Summary
-------

1. (U) Portugal has experienced significantly fewer forest
fires in comparison to the same period last year. However,
the summer is only halfway over and the temperatures continue
to rise. American technical assistance demonstrated its
value when a fire break created by the United States Forest
Service in March recently prevented a 300 hectare fire from
becoming a 3000 hectare conflagration. The Ministry of
Interior credits these efforts as well as improved detection
and early response for the reduced incidence of fires this
year. Others, including the Minister of Agriculture's
Special Advisor on Forest Fires Tiago Oliveira, claim that
the current structure for fire prevention and suppression
remains intrinsically flawed. The 2006 fire season has
claimed six casualties: five Chilean professional
firefighters and one Portuguese volunteer firefighter. To
stop such deaths and preserve the forest, the Portuguese
Forest Service has launched a new forest fire awareness
campaign. End Summary.

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Less Forest Fires this Year
---------------------------

2. (U) As of July 18, the Ministry of Agriculture's
Directorate of Forest Resources (DGRF) had registered 9,108
fire ignitions this year, resulting in a total burnt area of
9,560 hectares. Fifty-eight percent of the total land burnt
stemmed from 17 fires more than 100 hectares in size. During
the same period last year, there were 17,324 ignitions with a
loss of 30,597 hectares of land. The hardest hit areas
include the northern districts of Braga, Porto, and Vila
Real. Better meteorological conditions, including winter
rains more on par with historical averages and a milder start
to the summer, greatly contributed to the reduced incidence
of forest fires thus far in 2006. However, Minister of
Interior Antonio Costa has insisted repeatedly in the press
that improved vigilance and quicker responses stopped many
small fires from turning into conflagrations. Since 1995,
fires have destroyed 21% of Portugal's forests.

USDA Technical Assistance Reaps Rewards
---------------------------------------

3. (U) A fire break created by a United States Department of
Agriculture (USDA) team stopped a forest fire in northern
Portugal from descending down into a valley, thus preventing
a 300 hectare fire from expanding into a 3000 hectare fire.
In February and March, a team of five USDA Forest Service
experts in prescribed burns worked alongside the Portuguese
Forest Service on controlled burns, fire breaks, and other
forest fire prevention activities. Following the visit, the
USDA Forest Service donated 300 surplus fire-resistant, Nomex
pants to the Portuguese to better equip firefighters. The
pants arrived in July, and the Portuguese government
expressed its thanks through a diplomatic note.

Vigilance Only Part of the Solution
-----------------------------------

4. (U) PolEconoff recently visited the state-of-the-art
Surveillance and Warning Division of the National Service for
Fire and Civil Protection, currently run by International
Visitor Program candidate Pedro Patricio. The center
monitors all activities related to forest fires and other
disasters including monitoring calls from the municipalities,
tracking the movement of helicopters and firefighters, and
collecting data from remote cameras. Patricio commented on
the fairly quiet fire season thus far, but predicted the
situation would worsen once the "30 rule" prevails: when the
wind blows from the east at more than 30 km/hour, humidity
levels are under 30%, and the temperature is above 30 degrees
Celsius.

5. (SBU) According to Patricio, the current detection and
response system functions well with small fires. Any forest
fire that fails to be contained within twelve hours becomes a
catastrophe. He blamed the unavailability of volunteer
firefighters and the lack of coordination and command as two
main weaknesses for quickly combating forest fires. Given
the small number of professional firefighters usually located
in urban areas, Portugal relies on volunteers and forest
association workers (sapadores florestais) to tackle forest

LISBON 00001554 002 OF 003


fires. Portugal has more than 40,000 registered volunteer
firefighters and more than 400 volunteer associations, but
this fails to represent the actual availability of the people
during a forest fire. In 2005, the highest number of
volunteer firefighters available throughout the whole country
on any given day was 3,000. Coupled with the lack of
manpower, coordination and command during a forest fire
continues to be a problem. Patricio stated that some
improvements had been made with the addition of more command
positions at both the national and district level. However,
authorities and firefighters at the municipal level still
chafe at taking orders from anyone brought in from the
outside to take overall command of a forest fire response.
Only time and improved training for incoming firefighters
would change this mindset.

Casualties
----------

6. (U) Five Chilean firefighters and one Portuguese volunteer
firefighter were the first casualties of the 2006 forest fire
season. They died July 9 fighting a fire in Familicao da
Serra, near the northwestern border with Spain. The Chileans
worked for Afocela, an association created by cellulose
producing companies to protect their forest lands. Part of a
helicopter advance team, the Chileans were trying to open up
a vehicle and water route to the fire when they were
surrounded by flames. Interior Minister Costa interrupted
his trip to the Europe-Africa Summit on Immigration in Rabat
to travel to the scene. Initial reports indicate that lack
of coordination on the ground as well as the changing fire
behavior contributed to the deaths.

Agriculture Minister's Forest Fire Advisor Resigns
--------------------------------------------- -----

7. (SBU) The Minister of Agriculture's Forest Fire Advisor,
Tiago Oliveira, resigned from his position June 30 to return
to the private sector. The driving force behind The National
Plan for the Defense of Forests against Fires (reftel A) and
forest fire prevention efforts in Portugal, Oliveira believed
that, while some progress has been made over the past three
years, much more could have been accomplished. He expressed
frustration that many of the recommendations outlined by USDA
Forest Fire officials Mark Beighley and Michael Quisenberry
in their August 2004 report (reftel B) had still not been
implemented due to political pressures and in-fighting. The
Ministry of Interior and the fire-fighters continue to resist
the creation of any organizational unit outside their direct
control. The Ministry of Interior is responsible for fire
suppression, while the Ministry of Agriculture has the lead
on prevention efforts. According to Oliveira, the Minister
of Agriculture decided in early 2006 not to fight for these
two responsibilities to be placed under only one
organizational entity, choosing instead to focus his
political capital on pushing domestic agriculture and CAP
reform.

Public Awareness Campaign Launched
----------------------------------

8. (U) In June, the Ministry of Agriculture's Directorate of
Forest Resources (DGRF) launched a new public awareness
campaign, entitled "Between Ash and Green: You Decide".
Through television, radio, and newspaper announcements, the
campaign aims to increase awareness of the economic and
ecological importance of the forests as well as human actions
that cause forest fires. Specific demographic groups
targeted include hunters, farmers, forest owners, the youth,
and campers. DGRF hopes to emphasis that behaviors once
considered the norm and acceptable in the past (i.e. burning
trash in fields, unattended camp fires) now pose too much of
a fire risk due to changing climatic conditions, overgrowth
of farm and forest lands due to the exodus of farmers to
towns, and current land-use patterns.

Comment
-------
9. (U) Milder weather, better rains, and a bit of luck
rather than a new comprehensive fire prevention and
suppression program account for the lower incidence of forest
fires so far this year. USDA technical assistance
demonstrated the value of controlled burns and forest fire
prevention, and some progress has been made in improving the
command and control structure. However, until there is
greater political will to place responsibility for both
prevention and suppression under a single entity, any actions
undertaken are likely only to serve as a temporary solution

LISBON 00001554 003 OF 003


to the forest fire problem in Portugal.
Hoffman

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