Portugal’s famed green countryside is ravaged each year by forest fires, and the problem has worsened markedly in recent years – it’s estimated that ninety percent are caused by human activity, whether it’s arson or carelessness with cigarettes, bonfires and barbecues. Matters aren’t helped by the country’s timber industry, which has replaced native tree species with the highly flammable eucalyptus and pine. Peak fire season is midsummer, but in drought years forest fires break out as early as January and as late as November. You don’t need to drive through central and northern Portugal for long before seeing the evidence of past fires – hillsides burned black and torched trees – or the telltale plumes of thick smoke from the latest conflagration. On the worst days, ash falls to the streets in distant towns and cities, and major train lines and motorways are closed.
Extraordinarily, the firefighting service that has the unenviable task of dealing with the problem is almost entirely voluntary. The country’s 20,000 or so Bombeiros Voluntários make up over ninety percent of Portugal’s firefighting forces, with the few (and far better equipped) professional corps (Bombeiros Sapadores) based in the cities or working privately for the country’s timber and paper-pulp concerns. You’ll see Bombeiros Voluntários vehicles in every region – helping out with ambulance duties too as part of their remit – and the volunteers are usually the first and only firefighters on the scene when a blaze breaks out. Equipment and vehicles are often wholly inadequate; in the past, urgent appeals to the EU have led to specialist aircraft and foreign crews arriving to help.
It is, of course, horribly dangerous work and firefighters lose their lives every year. For this reason – and for their astonishing success rate in saving local homes and properties – the Bombeiros Voluntários have an almost heroic status in Portugal. Rare is the town without a street or avenue named after them, while proud municipal statues and memorials to their deeds proliferate.