Anger Grows Over Portugal Wildfire Deaths

Investigation underway to find cause of fires

 

A house burns in the village of Pinheiro dos Abracos near Oliveira do Hospital, northern Portugal, Monday, Oct. 16 2017. Late season wildfires that broke out over the weekend in Portugal have killed at least 35 people, including a 1-month-old infant, authorities said Monday, making 2017 by far the deadliest year on record for forest blazes in the country. (AP Photo/Sergio Azenha)

 

By BARRY HATTON, Associated Press

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Portugal began three days of national mourning Tuesday over its 41 wildfire deaths amid widespread public anger, with pressure growing on the government to explain why officials failed to prevent the tragedy that came just four months after 64 others died in another fast-moving blaze.

Rain and lower temperatures on Tuesday helped emergency teams in Portugal and Spain bring under control most of the fires that raged over the weekend. In Galicia, in northwest Spain, four people died.

Portuguese authorities reported that almost all major wildfires were out by Tuesday morning. Some 2,700 firefighters were deployed to prevent re-ignitions in the country’s smoldering forests.

Investigations were underway to find the cause of the late-season wave of hundreds of forest fires, which Iberian officials blamed mostly on arsonists and freak weather conditions. Temperatures on the Iberian Peninsula exceeded 30 C (86 F) over the weekend and the area was raked by high winds as Hurricane Ophelia churned past in the Atlantic.

“We are ready to extinguish fires, but we are not ready for arsonists,” Spanish Environment and Agriculture Minister Isabel Garcia Tejerina told public broadcaster TVE.

In Portugal, opposition parties rebuked the government for what they called a lack of preparedness.

The Civil Protection Agency’s full fire-fighting contingent operates only during the traditional peak wildfire season, which runs from July 1 to Sept. 30. In October, its fire-fighting assets are reduced by half.

Critics say the state of readiness must be more flexible, especially when Portugal is gripped by drought and its weather patterns are affected by climate change.

Prime Minister Antonio Costa, who has rejected calls for members of his government to resign over the fire deaths, called a special meeting of his Cabinet for next Saturday to discuss fire-fighting measures.

“This is not a time for resignations, this is a time for solutions,” Costa said.

But public outrage is simmering. Local governments in the worst-hit areas, aided by a social media campaign, are organizing silent street protests in Lisbon and in their own towns and cities to coincide with the Cabinet meeting.

In Galician towns on Monday, angry residents chanted “Never again!” to protest the deadly wildfires.

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Aritz Parra contributed from Barcelona, Spain.

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