“I had no option but to keep driving into the fire.”
That’s how survivor Gareth Roberts explains his harrowing ordeal in the Portugal wildfire. Roberts was returning from a vacation in Spain when the car he was driving was suddenly surrounded by a “tornado of flames.”
Thanks to the kindness of a stranger, Roberts and his companions were spared:
At least 63 other Portuguese residents were not so lucky.
Many of the confirmed dead were trapped in their cars when the blaze surrounded them as they were trying to escape. Dozens more were injured.
Portugal’s prime minister, António Costa, has called the wildfire “a level of human tragedy that we have never seen before.” The blaze was apparently started when lightning struck a tree in the dry, heavily forested areas of the country.
Residents are questioning why the death toll was so high in a country that experiences wildfires every year. Several possible answers are emerging.
For one thing, early efforts to alert the public about the deadly blaze were hindered when the flames destroyed both phone lines and communications towers.
But emergency services have been criticized for not closing the road where 47 of the deaths occurred.
Paulo Fernandes, a Portuguese professor of forest science, suggests that people may have panicked when firefighters failed to appear and decided to get into their cars rather than staying in their homes.
The area’s unseasonably dry weather also contributed to the disaster. A dry winter and spring was followed by a heatwave. When combined with very extreme atmospheric instability the result was lightning — but no rain.
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The country’s leading environmental lobby group, Quercus, said the Portugal wildfire was the result of “forest management errors and bad political decisions” by governments over recent decades.
Although the government recently announced new measures to combat the annual scourge of wildfires, these reforms have not yet been enacted.
One Portuguese headline read: “What failed this Saturday? Everything, as it has failed for decades.”
The article went on to explain that the three prongs of wildfire strategy – prevention, surveillance and detection, and response – are parceled out among “uncoordinated agencies which blame each other when things go wrong.”
Among the tragedy and devastation, some extraordinary tales of resourcefulness and heroism began to emerge.
Maria do Céu Silva saved 12 people (including her 95-year-old mother) by encouraging them to climb into her water tank.
“My husband told me to put my mother in the van, but since she couldn’t get in, she just said, ‘Let me die here’,” Silva said. “My son and I managed to pick her up and get her (into the tank).”
Other residents followed suit. The group spent six hours in the tank.
“If it hadn’t been for the tank, we’d all have died,” Silva said. “It was horrible, it looked like a horror movie.”
Gareth Roberts is alive today thanks to the stranger who beckoned him to come inside his home. “Between him and his mother they took in ten or so people,” Roberts said.
“We would all be dead without their generosity.”