From: Barry Hatton, Associated Press
Published September 7, 2005 12:00 AM

Portuguese Government Announces Measures To Prevent Wildfires

LISBON, Portugal — The government is establishing a rapid-reaction brigade of firefighters and purchasing a fleet of water-dropping aircraft in an effort to curb the damage caused each year by wildfires, a top official said Tuesday.


Internal Administration Minister Antonio Costa announced a raft of fire-control measures in Parliament, after a summer marked by some of the worst forest fires ever seen in Portugal.


Amid the country's worst drought on record, blazes scorched at least 240,000 hectares (600,000 acres) of forest and agricultural land and killed 15 people, including 11 firefighters. Only one previous year recorded worse fires.


Costa said an "absolutely extraordinary" weather pattern, with summer temperatures sometimes exceeding 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) compounding the drought, had brought a national calamity.


An average of 400 fires a day were recorded in August, he said.


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"We cannot regard forest fires as inevitable," Costa said. "Examples from abroad and some local good practices show the calamity can be limited."


Costa said police now would oversee a nationwide forest surveillance scheme, and a national fire-control command center would be established. The fire service is to get four water-dropping planes and 10 helicopters.


The rapid-reaction corps should be ready by year's end, Costa said, though he did not say how many firefighters it would contain.


Portugal has about 40,000 firefighters, but only about 8,000 are full-time professionals. The rest are trained volunteers who are part-time or called up from reserve when an emergency arises.


Fires raced through tinder-dry forest in July and August, razing about 150 houses and almost 900 farm buildings. Portugal Telecom lost about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) of overhead telephone cables.


The only cost estimate so far has come from the Farm Ministry, which estimated agricultural losses at around euro300 million (US$374 million).


Environmental groups blamed the fires on weak environmental education among rural communities and inadequate forest management policies.


Police suspect many of the blazes were set deliberately and have arrested more than 100 people this year on suspicion of starting fires.


Suspected motives include attempts to reduce the value of land for purchase. Police also have detained teenagers suspected of setting fires as pranks.


Source: Associated Press


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