Five years on from wildfire tragedy, Portugal again at mercy of heat and drought

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View of the low water level in Cabril dam reservoir in Pedrogao Grande
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By Catarina Demony and Miguel Pereira

LEIRIA, Portugal (Reuters) - Shocked into action in 2017 by a wildfire that killed 66 people, Portugal's government took steps to minimise the risk of a similar tragedy occurring again.

But five years on, blazes are again ravaging a countryside that, with those fire prevention measures poorly enforced in forests and plantations reduced to tinderboxes by a searing heatwave and an unprecedented drought, is as exposed as ever to the risk of uncontrolled destruction.

"We don't want more people to die because of a fire," said Dina Duarte, the head of an association helping victims of the wildfire in the central municipality of Pedrógão Grande, the deadliest disaster in modern Portuguese history.

"We want to warn that what happened in 2017 will happen again if there is no prevention... which is the case (at the moment)," she told Reuters against a backdrop of eucalyptus and pine trees surrounded by dry vegetation as one of several active Portuguese wildfires raged nearby.

Following Pedrógão Grande, the government invested in drones and water-bombing helicopters, but Duarte says much of the equipment is not in service and that legislation enforcing a 10-metre (33 ft) gap between roads and vegetation is largely ignored in central and northern regions.

Portugal, and neighbouring Spain, are also particularly vulnerable to the increasingly hot and dry conditions - blamed on global warming by scientists - that are making wildfires more frequent and dangerous.

An unprecedented expansion of the "Azores high" Atlantic high pressure system driven by climate change has left the Iberian peninsula at its driest in 1,200 years, and winter rainfall is expected to drop further, a study in the Nature Geoscience journal showed this month.

This year nearly 58,000 hectares (224 square miles) have been destroyed by fire, the most since 2017, and around 96% of mainland Portugal is facing severe or extreme drought, said weather agency IPMA.

DWINDLING RESERVOIR RESOURCES

Near Pedrógão Grande, a village submerged in 1954 when the Cabril dam was built has reappeared.

Its reservoir is only 37% full, the water levels reduced like in most Portuguese dams to below their historic average as rival interests compete for a dwindling resource.

The dams are often used by waterbomber aircraft but reduced capacity means there are less supplies to put out fires, Duarte said.

Sixty of them also provide hydropower, producing 30% of Portugal's electricity needs.

Environmental groups say utilities are using more water than necessary and, in response, the government has ordered some dams to prioritise human water consumption over companies' needs.

"It can't be just about profit," Duarte said, also pointing a finger at intensive farming. "There must be a social and ecological awareness that a dam has to be prepared for summers (that)... are likely to get drier and drier."

Agriculture consumes 75% of Portugal's water supply but an outdated irrigation system wastes around a third of that, says environmental agency APA.

Farmers have urged authorities to modernise irrigation, improve forest management and invest in desalination technologies.

'OUR GRANDCHILDREN WILL SUFFER'

Under a burning sun, Igor Pedro, who keeps cows, sheep and goats at a farm in the central town of Sertã, said water scarcity was having a big impact on animals too as the green undergrowth they used to eat is gone.

"We can't give (God) orders...," said the 38-year-old. "We have to deal with what comes next but it doesn't seem to be getting better."

Butcher António Simões, who owns a shop near the farm, said the drought, as well as soaring inflation due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, had sent his production costs up by around 70%.

If the drought worsened as predicted, the 66-year-old might have no option but to shut down his family business: "I don't know if we can carry on, because there are limits."

Olive grower Manuel Lopes, 67, fears a large wildfire burning near his plantation in the northern district of Murça will turn his trees to ashes.

"The drought has been extreme... There has been no rain and no winter...," he said. "Our grandchildren...will suffer if this (climate change) doesn't stop."

(Reporting by Catarina Demony, Miguel Pereira and Rodrigo Antunes in Leiria, Portugal; Aditional reporting by Guillermo Martinez in Tabara, Spain; Editing by Andrei Khalip and John Stonestreet)

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