Monday, 19 June 2017

Overwhelming Fire In Portugal

While headlines in Britain have been dominated by the Grenfell Tower fire, the situation in Portugal is at least as bad. In this instance, the fire is believed to have been started by lightning, but in many other similar fires in Southern Europe, Australia and California, forest fires have been started by property developers to illegally clear land, and have gone far, far out of control. Where this happens, it needs to be punished with exceptional severity, and it must be recognized that this type of arson is done for profit, and the culprits and their associates must be subject to asset seizure, exactly as if they were drugs dealers.

In terms of death toll, this is the worst forest fire in Southern Europe for some time, and the impact will be particularly bad in Portugal, where the national population is fairly small.

We are still at the beginning of summer: there will be more fires before autumn. There already are quite a lot of firefighting aircraft available in the region, particularly if the French are in a position to lend theirs, and these are useful, especially for moderating a fast-moving fire. But the death toll in such emergencies seems to come from villages and towns being surrounded and overwhelmed, and, especially, the fire catching up with fleeing residents on the highways. There needs to be a form of fire-fighting with "combat persistence" to defend pockets of habitation and avenues of escape.

There might well be room for even more amphibious water bomber aircraft, and for all-terrain vehicles able to get fire-fighting equipment to even inaccessible hotspots, but what is also needed is some sort of monster fire-fighting equipment that can make use of recently improved highways into villages and towns, to deliver water and fire-retardants for long enough to keep people alive until the fire passes.

After many years of infrastructure spending by the European Union, it is reasonable to expect highways and bridges leading to any significant settlement, to be able to take lorries of the normal maximum weight of forty-four tons. Tanker fire-engines should be built, right up to this weight, and equipped with high pressure jets, remote-controllable from within the cab, which should also have high quality air filters and standby oxygen to protect the crew. These vehicles should normally be filled with a solution of ammonium phosphate fire-retardant in water (plain water in a pinch), and their mission should be to damp down corridors along the highways, to keep the fire back so that residents can escape and fresh fire-fighting resources can be deployed. It would be straight-forward enough to also equip these machines to produce local mists of water or phosphate solution in "self-defence" if the fire gets close. Where suitable perimeter roads exist (and they could always be built especially for this purpose) the heavy fire-fighting equipment would be able to lay down a fire barrier around vulnerable towns and villages. There simply has to be a means of protecting refuges and the avenues of escape.

Update: 19/6/2017 The most recent news images from the scene (much too upsetting to embed on the blog), show burnt-out cars and body bags on what should be a decent single-carriageway trunk road, capable of taking standard 44 ton lorries. But the burnt-out trees come right up to the edge of the road. This is not acceptable for an evacuation route in a high fire-risk area. There has to be some sort of treeless verge. This would still require a last-minute spray with ammonium phosphate to make it into a firebreak, but at least it would be possible to spray such a break quickly from a vehicle trundling along the road, without encroaching trees creating dry and fire-retardant-free areas through which the fire could reach the road.

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