Big fires like the one in Pedrógão can happen “anywhere / everywhere”.


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The expert who studied the fires of 2017, Domingos Xavier Viegas, warned today that although it is more “likely” that big fires will occur in the central and northern regions of Portugal, these phenomena can happen “everywhere.”

“Our experience tells us that they can occur practically everywhere. In the central and northern regions of Portugal, where the topography is more complex and the vegetation is more fire-prone, it is more likely, but we have already seen large fires in regions where they were not initially expected,” warned the researcher from the University of Coimbra.

Acknowledging that the country has learned some lessons from the fires of 2017, in which 114 people died, the expert, who was part of the Independent Technical Observatory and coordinated the studies requested by the government on these fires, considers that it has not been “enough” and estimates that there is “a long way to go”.

“From a scientific point of view, study them and understand them better. Then, of course, to prepare the operational community to face them – especially to face them safely – and, finally, to prevent and sensitize the population so that, when they occur, panic situations and last-minute escape attempts are avoided, as happened in Pedrógão Grande and that caused loss of life,” he argued.

The Pedrógão Grande fire, which broke out on June 17, 2017 and then spread to neighboring counties, caused at least 64 direct deaths, more than 250 injuries and about 500 million euros in damages, and was extinguished just a week later.

Of the 64 officially counted dead, 47 died on National Road 236 while fleeing the fire. The devastation affected about 500 homes, including 169 first homes, and nearly 50 businesses and the employment of 372 people.

Four months later, on October 15th, already after the so-called critical fire season, the worst day of the year in terms of the number of fires was recorded, with more than 500 fires, the flames having particularly affected 27 municipalities in the Central Region, causing 51 deaths. In this case, more than a third of the victims died at home, many of them surprised by the fire while they were sleeping.

In an effort to better understand phenomena like the one that occurred in Pedrógão Grande, the Center for Forest Fire Studies (CEIF) at the University of Coimbra (UC) is building a thermal tunnel, the assembly of which, according to its coordinator, Xavier Viegas, is at an advanced stage.

“We hope to carry out tests at the end of this month. We are very hopeful that it will be an instrument that will allow us to study processes [namely large fires] that are still poorly understood by the scientific community and also by the operational community, in terms of the role of the vertical stability of the atmosphere in fire propagation,” he explained.

The UC researcher is convinced that the importance given to the role of the atmosphere is “exaggerated” in that, especially in large fires, there is sometimes “the development of a very strong convection – generated by the fire – and that, ultimately, if there is an unstable atmosphere, it can reinforce it.

With this equipment, the forest fire specialist hopes not only to understand fundamental aspects of fire behavior, but also to contribute to the training of firefighters and civil protection agents in fighting large fires, such as the one that broke out last year in the Serra da Estrela Natural Park between August 5 and 23.

Classified as the 6th largest in Portugal since records began, the fire affected 22 parishes, six municipalities and consumed a total of 22 hectares in the Serra da Estrela Natural Park.

In this fire, which “fortunately” did not have the proportions observed in Pedrógão, as in others that occurred last year, explains Xavier Viegas, it was possible to identify “situations of meeting of fronts that produced a very great acceleration,” as in the case of the fire in July 2022, in Murça, where a man and a woman, both around 70 years old, died while trying to escape the fire by car.

“The accident was preceded by the meeting of two fire fronts, which caused the fire to spread very quickly. The same thing happened in Serra da Estrela,” he pointed out, stressing that “the interaction with the atmosphere does not always play a fundamental role,” as happened in Pedrógão, where the thunderstorm influenced the behavior of the fire.

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