‘You can’t take risks’: Portugal’s lonely lookouts stand guard against wildfires

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The Guardian

There’s smoke on the horizon. From inside a small tower, perched on the summit of the Serra de São Mamede mountain in eastern Portugal, Anacleto Caldeira Velez observes it closely through binoculars, before radioing down to base. “It’s probably a barbecue,” says the 60-year-old, after putting down the transmitter, seemingly unalarmed by this early morning’s findings.

“Still, you can’t take any risks. My job is to keep watch for this type of thing day and night. If I see smoke I signal it, however insignificant it may seem. When land is this dry, an unextinguished cigarette can blow into an inferno in minutes.”

With the current heat crisis and wave of wildfires sweeping through Europe, Velez’s caution is justified. Some parts of Portugal have endured record July temperatures of 47C, and more than 50,000 hectares of land and forest have been consumed by flames since the beginning of the year.

In recent decades, these occurrences have been rising steadily, despite the government spending millions of euros on firefighters and equipment. It’s now painfully clear that extinguishing fires once they have spread is an uphill battle. Arguably, the best tactic is to catch them as early as possible.

This is where Velez comes in. He is part of a Portuguese network of fire lookouts who spend the dry season up towers at vantage points all over the country. They are often located in remote, densely wooded areas and their mission is to observe the surroundings, making sure that nothing is burning. This year, there are 230 towers in operation: 77 priority sites and 153 secondary sites, with more than 900 lookouts providing round-the-clock surveillance.

Sitting 1,027 metres above sea level, São Mamede is one of the priority sites. Velez has been operational since 6 May and will remain there until 7 October, working eight-hour shifts on a rota shared with three other lookouts.

Apart from handovers, he spends his time alone, more than 10 metres above the ground, in a metal room measuring less than three metres in diameter. Velez can’t leave unless specifically cleared to do so over the radio by the local police station, and can only communicate with them to report smoke or request exit. Then he must open a trap door in the floor and climb down the long, narrow ladder that tunnels its way down to the base.

A forest fire lights up the sky in Valpaços municipality, Portugal, this month. Photograph: Miguel Pereira Da Silva/EPA

“It’s a modern design that was brought in because they said our old tower wasn’t safe enough. I preferred the previous one: it was bigger, easier to access and even had an outside deck when it got hot. This new one is horrible – it’s boiling during the day, too cold at night and too difficult to get up and down when you need the toilet, especially at my age.” Despite the discomforts, Velez remains immensely proud of the job he has been doing now for eight years. “It’s nice to think that all my family, friends and neighbours can sleep safely while I’m up here looking out for them,” he explains.

“Last year we had six or seven situations that could have been much worse if I hadn’t spotted them. This year there have been even more.”

Further north, Carlos Rodrigues echoes Velez’s feelings from his tower in the Serra das Talhadas. He has seen a rise in incidents in recent years but doesn’t just blame the weather – there are a wide number of other factors to consider, he believes. “More than 90% of the fires are political,” claims the 41-year-old. “Things would change if there wasn’t so much money involved, but sadly, at the root cause of each fire, there is financial gain for someone.

“It goes all the way up from local governance to the high administration. There’s always a level of corruption making matters worse.”

The first focus for blame, according to Rodrigues, is the forests of eucalyptus trees down below his tower. This fast-growing tree isn’t native to Portugal but has become a popular cash crop for the country’s powerful paper industry. Now 900,000 hectares – a quarter of the country’s forests – are covered by dense plantations of this immigrant species, which is also incredibly flammable. “Eucalyptus forests aren’t managed properly, and left to grow far too densely without the right safety breaks,” he explains.

The new fire lookout tower in the Serra das Talhadas designed by Álvaro Siza Vieira and completed in 2021. Photograph: Sam Christmas

The devastating effect of this neglect was felt in the terrible 2017 fire of Pedrógão Grande. Sixty-four people died (more than half trapped in their cars) when 58,000 hectares of forest, mostly eucalyptus, burned down in less than a week. In the aftermath, many groups tried to lobby government and limit the species’ plantation but, considering its importance in pulp and paper exports worth around €3bn, this has so far fallen on deaf ears.

Then Rodrigues criticises the police and firefighters, who he argues should be held more accountable for shortcomings.

“The fire services are often too slow when checking up on sightings, and the police don’t take some of our reports seriously enough,” he says. “Then there are more serious offences, such as firefighters actually being caught starting fires themselves.”

Recently there have been a few well-publicised cases of criminal negligence and arson by firefighters. It may seem hard to understand, but this service is underfunded and made up of volunteers in Portugal, who only get paid when on call. So more fires also mean more work.

“Sadly, this country has other priorities ahead of fighting forest fires effectively,” he adds. “Just take the brand new tower I work in. Its first purpose is to be a tourist attraction, rather than a fire lookout tower. For me, that just tells you everything you need to know.”

Indeed the 16-metre-high tower was designed by eminent Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza Vieira and completed as part of a €625,000 investment to make the surrounding area more attractive to visitors. It is open to the public, who can climb up to all four platforms and admire the 360-degree view, and it’s also the starting/finishing point for many hiking trails, cycle paths and climbing routes.

Not all lookout posts are in such remote locations nor stick out in such an obvious way from their surrounding landscape. In the small town of Gavião, the fire lookouts operate from a room built in the main water tower, located on the edge of the urban perimeter.

Fabio Realinho has been working here for four years but, at only 25, he remains one of the youngest lookouts in the country.

“Being a fire lookout isn’t something that really attracts people of my generation,” he explains. “A lot of them think it’s too boring and lonely. It’s different for me – I don’t feel cut off as I’m near the town and I have lots of time to work on my hobby, which is landscape photography.”

According to Realinho, the real downfall is the seasonal nature of the job. During winter months, he is forced to find temporary contract work but says it’s hard, and the opportunities are few and far between. In his opinion, the service would benefit from an extra level of professionalism and could attract younger, lifetime career candidates if it were a full-time job.

Historically, fire lookouts were individually organised by local councils or forestry commissions and even private landowners. But since 2018, it has become the responsibility of the National Republican Guard – Portugal’s military police force. Now the lookouts get a month’s training to make sure their radio skills are proficient and they know how to operate the alidade, or angle table, which helps geo-localise fire by line of sight.

“This is probably the most complicated part of what we do,” says Realinho. “From Gavião you can see out over three different districts, but the landscape is very undulated and it’s hard to locate things properly. Getting the orientation wrong by just a degree or two could mean being off by 10km or more, which cuts into response times.”

At night, things become more complicated as smoke isn’t visible. The lookouts must be alert to changes in the ambient lighting – from afar, a small fire can look like a streetlamp or a stationary car. Staying awake is also a struggle.

“The dark hours are definitely the hardest but deliver a unique payoff if you make it through,” adds Realinho. “When the sun finally comes back up, it puts on an incredible show. It’s like watching someone paint the most beautiful picture in the world.”

July 24, 2022 at 02:08PM John Silcox

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