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How climate change is causing ‘mega-fires’ and forcing people to migrate to Portugal

origin 1Villagers stare in despair at the flames during the deadly 2017 fire near Pedrógão Grande, Portugal ©Miguel Riopa/ AFP

“A huge ball of fire flew down the hill onto the house,” said British expat Julie Jennings, recalling the horror of a fire that turned their Portuguese village into an inferno. “It was awful, I’ll never forget that sound.”

The 62-year-old grabbed her donkey and fled. Her partner Chris Nilton followed closely with their two dogs, abandoning their dream home in Mosteiro, Pedrógão Grande, which had been finished just 18 months earlier.

“I had about 19 olive trees in the front garden and they were all lit like Roman candles bursting 20 feet in the air,” 72-year-old Chris recalled.

“All the embers were hitting me and the dog. I was just in shorts, bare chested and flip flops. I could feel all these pieces of burning wood hitting me.

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Losing each other within seconds in the thick smoke and howling winds, Chris made his way to a river, putting out the fires on his and his dog’s heads as he went.

“I jumped in the river, I went under because my head was on fire,” said Chris “I was there probably five minutes and I thought what [have] I have to go back up the hill to the house and see where the hell it is.”

origin 1Chris Nilton and Julie Jennings look at some images from the 2017 firesWalterTengler/ RockedBuzz via Euronews

Chris and Julie survived the Pedrógão Grande fires on 17 June 2017. Obsessed with the experience, they migrated to colder climes on the coast of Portugal.

Flames killed 66 people that day, 30 of them in their cars as they fled on State Highway 236-1. 17 others died nearby trying to escape from cars on foot.

“We have friends in Nodeirinho, we know many people were killed there,” said Julie. drive away from the fire and they all died.”

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A new type of “megafire”

Portugal is a country used to forest fires.

But the one that hit Pedrógão Grande six years ago was the first of its kind in Europe, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Spain.

origin 1The national road EN236-1 on June 18, 2017 where 47 people died trying to escape the firePATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA / AFP

“In June 2017, for the first time in our latitudes, Portugal suffered a new type of fire, hitherto unknown to the scientific community: a sixth generation mega-fire clearly linked to global change,” WWF Spain wrote in a relationship.

“Extreme, uncontrollable and lethal. A type of fire that was also repeated that same year in Portugal e Spainand a year later in Greece.

“Climate change is accelerating and intensifying the occurrence of major fires at a faster rate than originally anticipated: we went from no major fires to having the three largest wildfires in Europe in just two years and in the same region ”.

Typical of Portugal fire the season traditionally runs from June to September.

But in 2017, high temperatures throughout the year and low rainfall in the previous spring and winter meant that there were about 2,500 fires in April and 3,000 in October, an indicator of how climate change it is extending the fire period.

In June, a heat wave and a dried out forest helped the fire create its own micro-climate. Strong and unpredictable winds fanned the flames.

Julie said it had been advised to spray water on the roof and vegetation around the perimeter of the property, normally an effective strategy for stopping the fire from spreading.

But this blaze was different.

origin 1The fire went fast from Valongo to Nodeirinho and killed 47 people on the road EN236-1Etienne Barthomeuf/ RockedBuzz via Euronews

“Nothing could have stopped him,” he told RockedBuzz via Euronews. “He Was in the village and from here to Nodeirinho (5 km west) probably in seven or eight minutes. That’s how fast and hot it was to travel.

“It was terrifying and I’ll never forget the noise. For me, the noise was the worst thing followed closely by the heat.”

At 9.00pm, a couple of hours after Chris and Julie fled their home, the fire reached its peak, moving at 3.3mph.

“That made it completely out of control firealmost impossible to control at times, becoming a catastrophe and not just a big fire we were used to,” said Rui Barreira, forestry, food and wildlife technician at the Portuguese Natural Association (ANP).

“These fires were characterized by their high speed of propagation. This can only be related to climate change.”

It took a week to put out the fires. By then they had burned almost 500 square kilometers of land, an area about the size of Andorra.

Then, four months later, in October, tragedy struck again.

origin 1Firefighters battle off-season fire in October 2017 with flames fueled by Hurricane ‘Ophelia’Francisco LEONG/AFP

A delay, out of season heat wave intensified drought and combined with winds from Hurricane Ophelia. It has seen another ‘mega-fire’ strike central Portugal, this time about 50 kilometers north of Pedrógão Grande. Killed 51 people.

While 2017 was exceptional, Portugal was the Mediterranean country most affected by forest fires over the past three decades, according to WWF.

“Portugal is one of the countries most affected by climate change,” EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said in December 2019. “Loss of coastline, hurricanes, floods and horrific forest fires have already come at a very high price.” .

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“We are moving because of climate change”

Although the fire ruined their dream home, Chris and Julie had initially decided to stay in the region.

But constant anxiety and fears of another fire changed my mind.

“When I build a fire I can smell the smoke and it brings it all back to me,” Chris said.

“It’s something you never forget, the smell of smoke terrifies us,” added Julie. “We decided to move to the center Portugal near the coast where the temperature will be lower and more consistent. We are moving because of climate change.”

Chris and Julie are not alone. Barreira said that in the aftermath of the fires, former residents of the area – many of them younger and city residents – returned to Pedrógão Grande to take their parents away, saying the region was no longer safe.

But it’s hard to get an accurate idea of ​​how many are left permanently from the fires three years ago at the time of writing.

Dina Duarte, president of the Association of Victims of Pedrógão Grande (AVIPG), estimates that there are a few dozen people, mostly foreigners.

Some have decided to stay. Dutch spouses Peter and Marion de Ruite, who live in Salaborda Velha, two kilometers from Mosteiro, saw their three-bedroom house destroyed in the fire. They spent a year living in a trailer next to the burned shell of their old home.

origin 1Marion and Peter de Ruite had to live for a year in a tent and caravan near their burnt-out houseMAFALDA GOMES/ JORNAL i

“Tragedy is more about people who have died than a home destroyed,” said Peter, who arrived in Portugal 15 years ago.

The heat and drought of recent years had prompted the couple to think about moving but they decided to stay.

“If I leave, I’m leaving this region behind which could be very beautiful if we work together in it,” Peter told RockedBuzz via Euronews. “I shouldn’t just abandon him. I think we should try to make this a better place.”

However, people left the region and well before 2017. Especially young people left in search of work in Portugalthe cities. In Pedrógão Grande the population decreased by 20 percent between 2001 and 2016 and for every 100 young people there are 284 elderly people.

“The strong depopulation and aging of the population, especially in the rural areas of the interior and the mountains, have forced the abandonment of all traditional agricultural activities,” says the WWF.

“Thus natural vegetation, shrubs, young pioneer forests but also monoculture plantations (species of eucalyptus and pine) have colonized the landscape. They are increasing the flammability and the flammability of the landscape.

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What else caused Portugal’s deadly fires?

One of the main problems for many in Portugal is the lack of forest management, which has allowed the propagation of flammable species such as pine and eucalyptus.

In 2009, two researchers, Mark Beighley and Albert C. Hyde, raised the question in a relationship on the Portuguese forest fire defense strategy.

They predicted that within the next decade the fires would burn an area of ​​500,000 hectares. It happened in 2017.

origin 1On June 18, 2018, uncontrolled species such as eucalyptus were already sprouting in the burned areasAP Photo/Sergio Azenha

Write back inside 2018, Beighley and Hyde said the problems they identified 10 years earlier were still a problem: the high proportion of unmanaged forest land; the increase of flammable material; the high number of unwanted start of fires; and climate change.

“What remains to be seen after the catastrophic fire year of 2017 in Portugal is whether there is now a consensus to see the fire problem as a genuine national priority,” their report reads.

Julie, for example, has her doubts that the government hasn’t done enough to address some of the problems.

“I know that after the fires people sold plots of land which are now being planted again with eucalyptus.

“And while I realize this is a lucrative crop for people and they need to make a living, it needs to be managed properly.

“Otherwise, it will continue to happen. To reforest here with more eucalyptus? I do not understand.”

origin 1Chirs Nilton and Julie Jennings’ house in Mosteiro a few days after the 2017 firesRockedBuzz via Euronews

Back in Mosteiro, Chris and Julie reflect on the reality that they are victims of global warming: they have become one climate migrants.

“We chose this place because it reminded us of the Lake District – it was green and there were trees and shade. It was just beautiful. But look at it now… it’s desolate and we’re moving because of climate change. Because that’s what makes fires the way they are.

“For Portugal, eucalyptus can go so low that’s why the water table is going down. And last summer with record temperatures our little river dried up. This tells you a lot that I think about climate change. And it’s sad. It makes me very sad.

This article was part of a series originally published in 2020.

The European Climate Migrant Survey was developed with the support of:

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