On 21 October, in various major cities in Portugal, hundreds of people came out to demand justice for victims that were killed by massive forest fires that had torn through parts of the country.
Forty-two people died and around 70 were injured in forest fires on 15-16 October, leading the government to declare three days of mourning for the victims and their famillies.
Fires were also reported in the Spanish region of Galicia, where four people died.
An estimated 500 fires have spread through Portugal's northern and central regions, burning around 250,000 hectares of forests and affecting various villages.
In June, a similar tragedy took place in Pedrógão Grande — a municipality in the center of the country — with fires leaving 64 dead and more than 200 injured.
According to the European Forest Fire Information System, which monitors forested areas via satellite images, around 500,000 hectares of forest have burned in 2017 alone – an area roughly twice the size of the district of Lisbon.
Para perceberem a gravidade da situação, só não há fogo em 4 distritos. Portugal está literalmente todo arder. #PrayForPortugal
— nata 💔 (@a_ataner) October 15, 2017
To understand the seriousness of the situation, only 4 districts have no fires. Portugal is literally burning
Images of the tragedy were shared on Twitter:
— torrada_mirita (@torrada_mirita) 18 de agosto de 2017
This is Braga tonight
Various videos were shared online and they gave glimpses of the devastation:
A tragedy forewarned
The aims of Saturday’s protests were to demand better state measures to prevent and fight fires.
Questions were raised over the inability of the civil protection service to control the tragedy. João Soveral, of the Confederation of Farmers of Portugal, told the newspaper Público:
Depois de Pedrógão fechavam estradas e evacuavam aldeias por tudo e por nada, neste domingo não fizeram isso em lado nenhum, houve dezenas de relatos de estradas abertas rodeadas pelo fogo, na mata de Leiria podia ter ocorrido uma tragédia semelhante à de Junho porque só se cortaram estradas muito tarde.”
After Pedrógão, they closed streets and evacuated villages for everything and nothing. This Sunday, they did not do this anywhere, there were tens of reports of open roads surrounded by fire. In Leiria's forests there could have been a tragedy similar to that of June because they only closed roads very late.
The protesters also called into question the many years that construction permits were given to projects in high fire risk zones. A proposal of stricter forestry reform presented by the government — after large fires in 2003 and 2005 — was questioned by councils, which complained that the rule was a barrier to investment.
“O Governo introduziu uma flexibilização na lei que autorizava casuisticamente construções caso o proponente tivesse meios de autoprotecção – era uma porta aberta para que tudo pudesse ser construído”, completa João Sorval, na mesma matéria do Público.
“The government introduced a flexibilization of the law that authorized constructions on a case by case basis, depending on whether or not the applicant had means of self-protection – there was an open door for anything to be built”, added João Sorval, in the same report by Público.
On top of the growing list of issues, during the 15-16 October fires, citizens who attempted to look for information or tried to contact relatives on the website of Portugal’s Civil Protection, found that the site was offline.
It was a private initiative that assumed the role of sharing information; using the civil protection’s own data, the application Fogos.pt informed people of the location of fires and their status in real time.
The project was created in 2015 by the programmer João Pina to facilitate the work of firefighters, and it became so important during that fateful October weekend that servers could not manage the 400,000 users and the 1.5 million views it received.
Its founder even asked for help:
— Tomahock (@tomahock) 16 de outubro de 2017
In the end, Google contributed to help keep the website running:
Quota aumentada por parte da @google 1 Milhão vamos ver até quando dá!
— Tomahock (@tomahock) 16 de outubro de 2017
Quota increased by @google 1 million we’ll see how long it lasts!
There have also been numerous tributes to the firefighters who have been working tirelessly to fight the flames.
— ⭐ Alexandre 1904 ⭐ (@RapazSemNome92) 16 de outubro de 2017
The firefighters are our heroes! Enormous pride!
Impossível ficar indiferente a esta tragédia. Solidário com familiares e amigos das vítimas. Apoio total aos bombeiros que arriscam a vida para ajudar da melhor forma possível.🙏🏽🇵🇹🇪🇸 pic.twitter.com/VO8Tjx0jHG
— Cristiano Ronaldo (@Cristiano) 16 de outubro de 2017
Impossible to remain indifferent to this tragedy. Solidarity with relatives and friends of the victims. Total support for the firefighters risking their lives to help in the best way possible.
Whether the Portuguese government will heed the cries of its people is anyone’s guess, but in the meantime, the country continues to burn.