By Lauren Frayer
20 June 2017

ELVAS, Portugal (Los Angeles Times) – Once shaded in canopies of leaves, the N-236-1 is a rural road that cuts through central Portugal, hugging hillsides pungent with eucalyptus and pine.

Now it is littered with husks of burned cars. Along the shoulder, ashen wisps of tree trunks stand sentinel like totem poles. A headline in Portugal’s Expresso newspaper calls it “The Saddest Street in Portugal.”

It’s where many of the 64 victims of Portugal’s deadliest wildfire were burned alive last weekend, trapped in their cars.

Even as thousands of firefighters still battle the flames, and coroners identify the charred remains of those who were unable to escape, investigators are probing the cause of the fire. Portugal’s prime minister says dry lightning was likely to blame.

But as its accomplice, environmentalists finger a newcomer, which has populated these hills as quickly as Portuguese have abandoned them for jobs in the city: eucalyptus trees. [Reminiscent of Australia’s “Black Saturday” forest fires in 2009. –Des]

Non-native eucalyptus and gum trees, with their medicinal fragrance and frosty blue-green leaves, now cover a quarter of all forested land in Portugal. First imported from Australia in the 18th century, they are among the world’s fastest-growing trees, and have become Portugal’s most common one — a profitable cash crop for paper and pulp. Portugal is Europe’s largest producer of eucalyptus pulp. It’s one of the country’s biggest exports.

But eucalyptus trees can exacerbate deadly fires. Their sap is flammable, and so is their bark, which flies off when burned, igniting new fires up to 100 yards away.

Smoke rises from fire in the Leiria District of Portugal, on 17 June 2017. Photo: Paulo Cunha / European Pressphoto Agency

California has had a similar history with eucalyptus trees, which bore at least some of the blame for the second-deadliest fire in the state’s history — the 1991 Oakland hills fire that claimed 25 lives.

“Our climate is like California. It’s normal to have fires here. But with the introduction of eucalyptus, they have lots of material to burn,” said João Branco, with the Portuguese environmental group Quercus. Its name is Latin for “oak,” a native tree the group is lobbying to have planted instead of eucalyptus.

Native oaks and laurels are more resistant to fires, but eucalyptus trees burn faster and hotter, making wildfires harder to control. The Portuguese government has pledged to ban new eucalyptus plantations, but the law has not yet been finalized.

“The government was negligent. This was a predictable fire, because it’s very well known in Portugal, the problem of eucalyptus and its connection to fires,” Branco said. “Everybody knew this could happen. It was a matter of time.” [more]

Reeling from its deadliest forest fire, Portugal finds a villain: eucalyptus trees


Forest fire rages on the IC8 in Portugal, on 17 June 2017. Photo: Financial Tribune

By Miguel Riopa
21 June 2017

(AFP) – Portugal's N236, now dubbed the "road of death", lies charred black from the devastating fire that swept from one side of forest to the other, trapping families and couples in their cars, and firefighters who had come to the rescue.

Road signs are burnt and unreadable, plumes of smoke rise from the ground on either side, and blackened car tracks cut across the tarmac, a grim reminder of the fierce blaze that killed 47 people Saturday, among the 64 victims of the giant fires.

Why were they caught in the inferno? Should the road have been blocked by police? Should they have been directed elsewhere?

Or was the fire moving so fast and unpredictably that there was nothing anyone could have done? […]

Serra da Fonseca said that many of those who met their death on the N236 had been spending the day at a popular resort with an artificial wave pool in Castanheira de Pera, and decided to go home when they heard about the fire.

He wonders why they were allowed to take the road south to the main IC8 road that goes through the area, even if that was the quickest route, when police knew that a fire was raging in the area.

"They should have told them to go the opposite way," he said, pointing to the N236 that runs past his restaurant into the hills above, where a thick cloud of smoke now hangs from another forest fire.

"It's longer but it was safer that day."

But for Samantha, a Briton who lives nearby, heading south appeared to be the quickest route for people who did not know the area well, particularly at a time of confusion when the fire was spreading at lightning speed.

"If you're a tourist, you go that way," she said.

"I don't think anyone knew the extent of it."

And on Saturday, there were only a few policemen working, said David, a 44-year-old cameraman who lives in Lisbon but who was visiting his parents.

"In the panic, they couldn't avoid the tragedy, it was impossible," he said. [more]

Questions swirl over Portugal fire's 'road of death'

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