AFP, published Tuesday, September 13, 2022 at 8:45 pm
Five years after the June 2017 fire in Pedrogao Grande, the deadliest in Portugal, the 11 people who were tried in the Leiria court (center) for manslaughter were all acquitted on Tuesday.
Although deficiencies in preventing and combating this forest fire were indeed found during the trial, the judges found that the extent of the tragedy, which resulted in 63 deaths and 44 injuries, was caused by an extreme, rare natural phenomenon. and unpredictable “. .
Sitting in the dock, the commander of the Pedrogao Grande fire brigade, local executives of an electricity supplier and a road manager, as well as several local elected officials, greeted this verdict with great relief, in front of a packed hall. where only a few relatives of the victims were present.
“It has not been proven that the deaths and injuries were the result, by act or omission, of the conduct of any of the defendants,” the court said in a statement released after the hearing.
According to the judges, the violence of the fire was caused by a phenomenon “never observed before in Portugal or in the whole of the European continent”, which occurred when the smoke and heat emanating from the fire suddenly fell, creating discharges and a “burst of fire “, described the President of the Court Maria Clara Santos.
– Heat wave and drought –
On 17 June 2017 the municipality of Pedrogao Grande, located almost 200 kilometers north of Lisbon, made up of 72% of uninterrupted forest areas, and the whole of Portugal was hit by a strong heat wave and the most severe drought from 1931, she recalled.
The court acknowledged that the companies responsible for the maintenance of the electricity network and the roads had not fully complied with the rules that required them to create protective strips without vegetation, but was not convinced that this would actually slow the progression of the flames.
Most of the victims were trapped in their vehicles as they tried to escape the fire by car.
The commander of the Pedrogao Grande fire brigade at the time, Augusto Arnaut was accused of delaying the mobilization of the means that could have allowed the control of the fire in his childhood, before it devastated 24,000 hectares in five days, but the court explained that it had found flaws at various levels of the combat system.
“It is not the commander who has failed, it is the system”, reacted the president of the Portuguese League of Firefighters, Jaime Marta Soares. Before the hearing opened on Tuesday morning, about a hundred of his comrades in uniform gathered outside the courthouse in an honor guard to express their “silent” solidarity.
– “Abandoned” forests –
“This decision is surprising because we come up with the idea that there was no human intervention in this tragedy,” regretted the lawyer of several of the victims’ families, André Batoca.
The year 2017 remains a bad memory for the Portuguese because after a new wave of fires in mid-October, the toll of forest fires had risen to a total of 117 deaths.
Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa acknowledged that the responsibility of the state has been committed and that the families of the victims of the fires in June and October 2017 have been compensated for a total of 31 million euros.
The head of the socialist government then assured that nothing would be “like before” in the fight against forest fires, promising for example to bury power lines or to promote the professionalization of firefighters, who remain mostly volunteers.
However, in Pedrogao Grande, “the situation is worse than in 2017, with a lot of forest land abandoned,” forest engineer Paulo Pimenta de Castro told AFP.
And “in terms of fire protection, there has been no structural reform, only cosmetic changes,” he says, citing the example of the forest fire that devastated 24,000 hectares in the middle of the Serra da Estrela park (center) this summer. , without causing death.