EU response to fight wildfires in Portugal arrived too late

Fire-fighting planes requested by Portugal on Sunday evening from EU’s civil protection mechanism arrived on Tuesday when all active fires already had been extinguished. At least 39 people have been killed in the wildfires in Portugal and Spain according to officials from both countries.

At a technical briefing in Brussels on Tuesday (17 October) a senior EU official confirmed that Portugal had activated the protection mechanism at around 20.45 pm on Sunday evening and requested four fire-fighting planes. Only Italy responded to the request and sent two planes which arrived on Tuesday morning respective Tuesday noon.

Through the mechanism also expert help and satellite images of the fires were provided to Portugal. Spain did not activate the mechanism apparently because it relied on its own resources to fight the fires.

Asked by The Brussels Times, the official said this was the most satisfactory response considering the circumstances. “The mechanism is not binding and this was what the member states could offer.”

“No country can face a situation like this alone,” the official said. This was not the first time the mechanism could not address the need for help because of limitations in member states capacity. Last Summer requests from Greece and a neighboring county were not met.

She announced that measures were in the pipeline to strengthen the capacity of the mechanism and speed up the response, including legislative simplification and funding for disaster prevention. “Fires and floods are the biggest threats in the future.”

Although some of the fires in Portugal and Spain started deliberately as the result of arson, the situation was aggravated by climate change factors which spread the fires. The number of wildfires and size of burned-out areas in Europe has tripled in the last 10 years.

Background information

The EU Civil Protection Mechanism is managed by the Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC). It coordinates pan-European assistance and ensures that all participating states in the mechanism are informed of needs from an affected country during a crisis.

Since its launch in 2001, the Civil Protection Mechanism has monitored over 400 disasters and has received almost 300 requests for assistance, including tackling devastating disasters in third countries.

This Summer it was put into action 8 times to help countries affected by forest fires such as Italy, France, Portugal, Albania and Montenegro.

The decision to activate the Civil Protection Mechanism is not made by the Commission but has to be made by the national authorities of the affected country. The provision of assistance from the Member States is voluntary and depends on their capacity.

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