Editorial of November 2017

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by Sophie Perez Fernandes, Junior Editor

The forest fires in Portugal and the EU

The Author of this post took the photo above during a common episode of her daily life, returning from work. While I was waiting for someone I stared at the landscape around me. Sadly, I realized, on that sunny, bright and warm October day, that the surrounding green I’d been accustomed to had partially disappeared. And I photographed it. I will not bother the reader with the reasons – these are personal and subjective. That is not the case of the reasons for its disclosure with this post.

The place photographed will not be revealed. The place is not the point – and not being the point, it is the point. It could be anywhere. That landscape is not only the one I photographed in that spur of the moment. Anyone present in that place, at that moment, was contemplating the same landscape – it was not a matter of me, but of us. And similar landscapes are, sadly, scattered through Portugal today and will remain for a long while – us is so much bigger than that place, at that moment.

And because the forest fires that ravaged Portugal in 2017 are so much bigger than that place (Portugal), at that moment (2017), the European within me was on alert as well.

The forest fires that occurred in Portugal were impressive not only because of their dimension and their impact, but also because of the unusual period of recent occurrences. In addition to the heavy human losses – the number of fatalities tragically exceeds a hundred – and to the equally heavy ecosystemic damage – associated with the loss of biodiversity always linked to any phenomenon of forest degradation/destruction –, the anomalous character of the forest fires recorded on October 15 and 16 also generates awareness to the reality of climate change.

Within the framework of the (Portuguese) Forest Fire Protection System, which provides for a set of measures and actions for institutional coordination, planning and intervention related to the prevention and protection of forests against fire, the critical period during which special forest fires prevention measures and actions are in force, is legally set from July 1 to September 30. This year only, the critical period was extended twice, for October 15 and then for October 31. It was not enough. The 9th Provisional Forest Fires Report 2017 (Portuguese version), which refers to the period from January 1 to October 16, gives an account for a total of 16,613 occurrences (among which, 3,639 forest fires, of which 188 are qualified as large fires), resulting in 418,087 ha of forest area burned. Until October 16, the year 2017 presents the 6th highest number of occurrences and the most extensive area burned since 2007. The latter data represents 407% more area burned than the annual average (in ten years) of the period in question (January 1 to October 16). In particular, the largest burned area recorded occurred between the 1st and the 16th of October (200,890 ha), which corresponds to 48% of the total area burned in the year – that is, about half of the burned area was recorded after the legally established critical period.

The recent extreme events demonstrate the significant exposure and vulnerability to climate variability in our country. But Portugal is not alone. The neighbouring Spain was affected that same weekend by forest fires. More than that, following a request for assistance from the Portuguese authorities, firefighting aircrafts from Italy were dispatched through the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism. And recently Italy requested assistance to battle forest fires, as this same Mechanism gives account (here).

EU is a lot of things, but above all EU is a given geographic space, unfortunately affected by natural and man-made disasters, both potentially (and indeed) aggravated by the absence of (human) means to respond to them. The Union Civil Protection Mechanism aim to strengthen the cooperation between the Union and the Member States in order to facilitate coordination in the field of civil protection and improve the effectiveness of systems for preventing, preparing for and responding to natural and man-made disasters, both inside and outside the Union borders. In a scenario where future disasters are expected to be more frequent, more extreme and more complex, with far-reaching and longer-term consequences as a result, in particular, of climate change, the importance of the Mechanism will be heightened and its operational capacities tested. That is why the strengthening of the Mechanism is announced in the Commission Work Programme 2018 «An agenda for a more united, stronger and more democratic Europe».

But other than this institutional response, the forest fires in Portugal were also the occasion for a, albeit not emotional, but at least affective communication from Europe to Portugal and to the Portuguese people. For instance. The forest fires in Portugal (and Spain) were discussed in the European Parliament and a minute’s silence was observed for victims in July and October. A few weeks ago, President Emanuel Macron interacted on social networks in Portuguese to express his solidarity and to call for the creation of a European civil protection force. It is not only through great steps, but also with small gestures that the Union can promote what is within its mandate – the creation of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe. And so it is because events like the forest fires mentioned here do not only concern Portugal and the Portuguese people, but concern all of us – here in the EU, and elsewhere…

Picture credits: personal archive.

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