Ambulances evacuate people from Picha, a village in Pedrogao Grande district, in 2017

Portugal awaits verdict in murder case 5 years after devastating wildfire

Ambulances evacuate people from the village of Picha in the Pedrogao Grande area, 2017 – Copyright AFP/File FRANCISCO LEONG

Thomas CABRAL

Five years after Portugal’s deadliest bushfire that killed 63 people, the country was due to hear a verdict in the case of 11 people accused of negligent homicide in connection with the tragedy.

Fires broke out in central Leiria during a heat wave in June 2017 and burned for five days, destroying 240 square kilometers (90 sq mi) of pine and eucalyptus hillsides.

Many of the victims died stuck in their vehicles trying to escape the flames fanned by strong winds.

In the dock are a senior firefighter and several local officials, as well as employees of the power company and the firm responsible for maintaining the road in the Pedrogao Grande area, where about 40 victims have died.

Another 44 people were injured.

The defendants are accused of failing to prevent or extinguish a fire that has engulfed the countryside 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of Lisbon.

Several relatives of the victims were in a packed courtroom in the city of Leiria for hearings on Tuesday.

Prosecutors have asked for prison terms for the five defendants, which means sentences of at least five years.

– Reassure Families –

“We hope the verdict will reassure families,” Dina Duarte, head of the victims’ association, told AFP on Monday.

She acknowledged that “no country could have been prepared” for a blaze of such ferocity, but said “the entire chain of command should be judged” and not just those people on the ground.

Less than six months after the Pedrogao Grande disaster, a new series of deadly wildfires broke out in the center and north of the country, killing 45 more people.

Augusto Arno, who was the commander of the Pedrogao Grande fire brigade during the June disaster, is accused of not taking action early enough to stop the flames before they got out of control.

But on Monday, Portugal’s Firemen’s League issued a statement saying it believed Arnaud was innocent and had done everything it could.

And on Tuesday, about 100 uniformed firefighters lined up in a silent guard of honor in honor of Arnaut outside the courthouse.

Three executives of road maintenance company Ascendi could also face jail time.

Prosecutors said they acted irresponsibly by failing to clear vegetation from roadsides through which many victims tried to escape the fire.

An employee of the distribution network can also be sentenced to severe punishment for the fact that the fire was caused by the discharge of a power cable over a gunpowder bush.

– The forests are “abandoned” –

Several local officials from Pedrogão Grande, Castaneira de Pera and Figueiro dos Vinhos, the three most affected areas, are accused of failing to maintain forests along roads and under power lines.

Prime Minister Antonio Costa acknowledged that the state bears some responsibility for the June and October 2017 fires that killed 117 people. Relatives of the victims received compensation totaling 31 million euros.

The Socialist leader promised to overhaul Portugal’s firefighting capacity by burying power lines and turning the largely volunteer fire brigades into a professional force.

But forestry engineer Paulo Pimenta de Castro told AFP the situation is now “worse than in 2017”.

“A lot of wooded areas have just been left unattended (and) there has been no fundamental firefighting reform, only superficial changes,” he said.

He gave the example of a forest fire just last month that destroyed another 240 square kilometers, this time in the Serra da Estrela Protected Natural Park, also in central Portugal.

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