Cablegate: Portugal 2009 Forest Fire Roundup

DE RUEHLI #0564/01 3031356
R 301356Z OCT 09



E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: A. 04 LISBON 1196
B. 05 LISBON 1467

LISBON 00000564 001.3 OF 002

1. (U) Portugal forest fire experts Mark Beighley and Tiago
Oliveira said 2009 was a light forest fire season in
Portugal, and the government of Portugal (GOP) has
strengthened its firefighting capabilities since 2006.
Education programs to reduce human-caused ignitions and
forest fuel reduction efforts need to continue to safeguard
forestry resources which generate 3 percent of Portugal's
gross domestic product (GDP) and support over 250,000 jobs.
The expanded GOP firefighting capabilities should be adequate
for normal fire seasons but risk being overwhelmed in heavy
fire seasons like 2003 and 2005. End summary.

2. (U) Poleconoff spoke with Mark Beighley, formerly of the
U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service and now an
independent consultant on forest fire issues, and Tiago
Oliveira, risk manager for Portuguese pulp and paper company
Grupo Portucel-Saporcel (GPS), several times about the 2009
fire season in Portugal. Beighley was in Portugal this
summer under contract to GPS to conduct an assessment of GOP
forest firefighting capability and improvements to the
firefighting system since the Forest Defense Against Fire
Plan (FDAFP) was implemented in 2006. Before his retirement
from the USDA Beighley worked extensively with GOP forestry
authorities and contributed to the FDAFP. Beighley and
Oliveira shared their assessment of the 2009 fire season and
fire fighting capabilities in Portugal.

3. (U) Portugal's forest resources are important
economically and environmentally. The forestry sector in
Portugal provides 3 percent of GDP, over 10 percent of
Portuguese exports, and over 250,000 jobs. The forests are
also critical for maintaining hydrological cycles, protecting
against soil erosion, supporting biodiversity, and for
contributing to scenic leisure and tourism activities.

4. (U) Although final figures are unavailable, 2009 was a
relatively light fire season for Portugal, with the number of
fire occurrences and total burned area below average. (Note:
A normal fire season in Portugal is a maximum of 250 new
fires per day, and total area burned per season has averaged
157,000 hectares over the last nine years.) The fire season
started early with larger brush fires in the north during a
late March and early April dry spell. After April
temperatures dropped and the number of fires did not increase
again until late August, continuing until early October.

5. (U) 2003 and 2005 were much heavier fire seasons in
Portugal, with total burned areas of 430,000 and 300,000
hectares, respectively. Post coordinated USG monetary and
technical support during these devastating fire seasons,
producing a bilateral fire cooperation program in cooperation
with the Luso-American Development Foundation (FLAD) and
facilitating assistance from USDA firefighting experts
(including Beighley) (reftels). These devastating seasons
led to the implementation of the 2006 Forest Defense Against
Fire Plan.

6. (U) Firefighting capabilities have improved since the GOP
adopted the 2006 FDAFP. The national firefighting
organization has been reformed to improve program
coordination and integration, and first responders are
better-trained and specialized. Firefighting "combat
strength" has increased to about 9,500 firefighters, over
2,200 vehicles and 56 aircraft. The GOP has also encouraged
more community-level planning, and 234 municipalities have
developed their own forest fire response plans.

7. (U) The weakest point of the Portuguese forest fire
defense is the fixed detection system. One of the more
political changes made since 2006 was to move management of
the forest fire lookout towers (RPNVs) from the AFN (National
Forest Authority) to the GNR (Republican National Guard).
Starting this year, the GNR was required to hire the
chronically unemployed to staff the RPNV towers. The new
staff was inadequately trained and often had low morale from
being required to work in towers far from their own
communities. This often resulted in late reporting of new
fires leading to more area burned before the fire fighters
could respond.

8. (U) Portuguese firefighting capabilities have increased

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since 2006 but the environmental risk of extended periods of
extreme burning conditions has also increased. Efforts to
reduce the number of human ignitions are showing positive
results, but the number of annual occurrences is still high.
97 percent of fire ignitions in Portugal are human-caused.
National education campaigns are making progress, but
instilling appreciation for the value of Portugal's forest
resources and the need to protect them may take a generation.

9. (U) Structural forest fuel (e.g., dry brush, dead trees)
treatment skills have improved and the basis of a viable
structural defense program has been established. However,
fuels are being added to forests much faster than they are
being removed, and areas burned extensively in 2003 and 2005
are now ready to burn again. Portugal needs to expand the
annual fuel treatment program beyond the 10-year average area
burned by wildfire.

10. (U) Increased combat capacity is likely to be effective
in years with normal and below normal burning conditions when
fires are located primarily on the populated coastal side of
the country, but even in some normal years firefighters may
be stressed to respond to large fires in rural inland
forested areas. The increased capacity is likely to be
inadequate in an extreme fire year, and rural inland forested
areas would be subject to the greatest impact because of
suppression priorities for urban-forest interface communities.

11. (SBU) Although the 2005 fire season was devastating it
had a silver lining as it became the impetus for the 2006
Forest Defense Against Fire Plan and increased spending for
firefighting capabilities. It is fortunate that the FDAFP
was released when resources were more plentiful, as it is
doubtful that the GOP could afford to be so generous with
funding for firefighting after the onset of the global
recession. We hope the GOP will sustain public education and
forestry management efforts, and post will continue to
support and report on forestry-related activities. End

For more reporting from Embassy Lisbon and information about Portugal,
please see our Intelink site: ugal

© Scoop Media

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