Portugal is taking the drastic step of clearing vast swathes of forests to prevent a repeat of last year's deadly wildfires, which killed 112 people.

 

Prime Minister Antonio Costa, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa and some 20 senior government officials joined workers across Portugal to begin clearing large tracts of forests that cover almost 60% of the country.

 

Costa has made the fight against wildfires his number one priority after his cabinet faced huge public anger over what critics say was its inefficient handling of the devastating blazes in June and October that tore through Eucalyptus plantations established in recent years.

 

"Portugal is becoming aware that it is absolutely necessary to clear high-risk areas to reduce the number of summer fires," Costa said after arriving in Loule in the southern Algarve region to kick-start the forest-clearing process.

 

In February, Costa issued tough new rules forcing landowners to clear their woods and cut trees until March 15 or face fines of up to 120,000 euros (NZ$200,000).

 

But the decree sparked outcry from an important number of local officials and environmental organisations, which had criticised the short deadline. In response, the government extended the delay to May 31. It also raised other issues.

 

The depopulation of rural areas means that landowners are often either absent or too old to cut down trees, forcing the government to step in and assist.

 

And the plan to replace highly flammable eucalyptus plantations with more resistant species such as the indigenous cork oak have been met with resistance from the paper industry. Also, many small land owners in central Portugal live off the eucalyptus trade.

 

Meanwhile, Portugal's 68,000 firefighters, many of whom were in the frontline of the fight against the wildfires are unhappy with ongoing problems arising from the destruction of phone lines and mobile network transmitters during last year’s conflagration and are demanding action from the government.

Posted on Thursday 12th April 2018

Portugal clearing forests to prevent deadly fires

A Spanish firefighting plane flies over the fires in Pedrogao Grande, Portugal last June.

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