Portugal: Forest Fires - Information Bulletin No. 1

This bulletin is being issued for information only, and reflects the current situation and details available at this time. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is not seeking funding or other assistance from donors for this operation. The Portuguese Red Cross will, however, accept direct assistance to provide support to the affected population through its national appeal (see details below).

The situation

Deadly forest fires starting on Saturday, 17 June 2017 in the village of Escalos Fundeiros has swept through central Portugal killing at least 62, injuring 62 and displacing some 200 people to date. The blaze is thought to have been caused by a lightning that struck a tree at around 2 p.m. on the 17th in a dry thunderstorm. Within a few hours, the flames have rapidly spread from the municipality of Pedrogão Grande to Castanheira de Pêra e Figueiró dos Vinhos and further along four fronts surrounding several villages, killing and injuring civilians and destroying houses and roads. Many people have burned to death in their cars and on the road after becoming trapped by the flames on the road between Figueiro dos Vinhos and Castanheira de Pera. Others have died from smoke inhalation. To date, 18 people have been taken to hospitals in Lisbon, Porto and Coimbra, five of them – four firefighters and a child – seriously injured.

Portuguese authorities have evacuated the district emergency plans and national contingency plan in the night of the 17th and requested international assistance from the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism for aircraft support. Spain has dispatched two and France sent three water-bombing planes on Sunday morning to help the Portuguese fire service contain the fires. Portugal’s Social Welfare Department is providing social support for the displaced through 400 social welfare officials, assisted by the Portuguese Red Cross (see further details below). Dozens of people who fled their homes have been taken in by residents of nearby municipalities. Four shelters have also been established and are run by Social Welfare.

According to the latest (morning of 19 June) data of the Portuguese Civil Protection, more than 800 personnel (firemen, INEM, civil protection, Red Cross and Armed Forces) are currently combating the fires in the affected areas in the district of Leiria assisted by 350 vehicles and ten aircrafts. The death toll is expected to rise as many are still missing and the flames continue to spread. Three days of national mourning has been declared until Tuesday.

The forest fires happened amid severe heatwave with temperatures reaching 40 °C in some areas of the country over the past days. On 15 June 2017, a heat and fire alert had already been issued by the Portuguese Civil Protection in response to the hot weather forecast for 16-18 June. Portugal, like most of southern Europe is prone to forest fires in the dry summer months. This blaze is the country’s worst forest fire in more than half a century.