September 6, 2005

Portugal unveils measures to fight forest fires

By Axel Bugge

LISBON (Reuters) - Portugal's government proposed six
measures on Tuesday to fight what it said had become the
"permanent risk" of forest fires.

Facing growing pressure to deal with widespread forest
fires, the government said it would create a professional fire
fighting force, buy aircraft and set up a centralized command
to fight and monitor forest fires.

"As happened this year, we are facing a permanent risk
which demands permanent measures," Interior Minister Antonio
Costa told parliament.

Portugal is currently going through its worst drought on
record which could extend into next year and further fan fires.

Portugal has relied mostly on volunteer fire fighters to
combat fires. Costa said the new professional force could help
with other disasters as well.

"These measures will improve the fight against fires," said
Fernando Curto, head of the national association of fire
fighters. "They are structural measures that are likely to be
supportive and could help in other situations as well."

This year's fires have been the second-worst on record,
destroying an estimated 240,000 hectares (600,000 acres) of
forest, killing 15 people, damaging agricultural crops and
causing the evacuation of dozens of villages.

"We refuse to accept forest fires as inevitable, the
international experience shows that it is possible to reduce
this calamity," said Costa.

Relative to its size, much larger areas of Portugal have
been burned than in neighboring Spain this year.

Costa said next year's budget would include the purchase or
long-term leasing of four aircraft and 10 helicopters to fight
fires. The government has none of its own aircraft for fighting
fires and has relied on renting expensive private planes or, as
this year, receiving help from other European Union countries.

In the last three years, nearly 770,000 hectares (1.16
million acres) have been burned -- an area about three times
the size of Luxembourg. If fires continue at their current
pace, all Portugal's forests could have burned down in two

While fires did not burn in the Algarve tourist area this
year, there have been concerns the flaring up of fires during
summer could hit Portugal's important tourist industry.