Portugal awaits verdict in homicide trial, 5 years after worst wildfire

Portugal awaits verdict in homicide trial, 5 years after worst wildfire

Ambulances evacuate people from Picha, a village in Pedrogao Grande district, in 2017
Ambulances evacuate people from Picha, a village in Pedrogao Grande district, in 2017. Photo: FRANCISCO LEONG / AFP/File
Source: AFP

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Five years after Portugal's deadliest wildfire, which claimed 63 lives, the country was due on Tuesday to hear the verdict in the trial of 11 people accused of negligent homicide over the tragedy.

The fires broke out in the central Leiria region during a heatwave in June 2017 and burned for five days, destroying 240 square kilometres (90 square miles) of hillsides covered with pine and eucalyptus trees.

Many of the victims died trapped in their cars while trying to escape the flames, which were fanned by violent winds.

A senior firefighter and several local officials are in the dock, alongside employees of a power company and a firm responsible for maintaining a road in the Pedrogao Grande district where around

40

of the victims died.

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Another 44 people were injured.

The defendants are accused of failing to prevent or combat the fire that swept through the rural area 200 kilometres (125 miles) north of Lisbon.

Several of the victims' relatives were in the crowded courtroom in Leiria city for Tuesday's hearing.

'The entire chain of command should be tried,' says Dina Duarte
'The entire chain of command should be tried,' says Dina Duarte. Photo: PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA / AFP
Source: AFP

Prosecutors have demanded jail terms for five of the accused, which would mean sentences of at least five years.

'Calm the families'

"We hope the verdict will calm the families," Dina Duarte, head of the victims' association told AFP on Monday.

She acknowledged that "no country could have been prepared" for a fire of such ferocity but said "the entire chain of command should be tried", 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 centre and north of the country, killing another 45 people.

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Augusto Arnaut, who was commander of the Pedrogao Grande fire brigade at the time of the disaster in June, is accused of not taking action early enough to control the blaze before it raged out of control.

But the Portuguese Firefighters League issued a statement on Monday saying it believed Arnaut was innocent and had done all he could.

And on Tuesday, around 100 uniformed firefighters formed a silent guard of honour for Arnaut outside the court.

Flowers for the victims of the blaze by the side of a road in Pedrogao Grande
Flowers for the victims of the blaze by the side of a road in Pedrogao Grande. Photo: PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA / AFP
Source: AFP

Three executives from road maintenance company Ascendi could face prison too.

Prosecutors said they had acted irresponsibly by not ensuring the clearing of vegetation from verges through which many victims sought to escape the flames.

An employee of the electricity distribution network could also face a stiff sentence because the fire was sparked by a discharge from a power cable above tinderbox scrub.

Forests 'neglected'

Several local officials from Pedrogao Grande, Castanheira de Pera and Figueiro dos Vinhos, the three worst-affected districts, are charged with failing to maintain the forests along the roads and under power lines.

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Prime Minister Antonio Costa accepted the state bore some responsibility in the fires of June and October 2017, which killed 117 people. The victims' relatives received compensation worth a total of 31 million euros.

The Socialist leader promised to overhaul Portugal's firefighting capacity, burying power lines and turning the largely volunteer fire brigades into professional forces.

Vegetation is gradually overtaking houses abandoned in the fire
Vegetation is gradually overtaking houses abandoned in the fire. Photo: PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA / AFP
Source: AFP

But forestry engineer Paulo Pimenta de Castro told AFP the situation now was "worse than in 2017".

"Many forested areas are just left neglected (and) there has been no root and branch reform to firefighting, just superficial changes," he said.

He gave the example of a wildfire just last month that destroyed another 240 square kilometres, this time in the protected Serra da Estrela Natural Park, also in central Portugal.

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Source: AFP

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