1,300 firefighters battle Portugal wildfires

Firefighters try to extinguish a wildfire near Monchique, in Algarve, on August 8, 2018. (File/AFP)
Updated 21 July 2019

1,300 firefighters battle Portugal wildfires

  • Around 20 people were injured in the blaze, including 8 firefighters and 12 civilians
  • Authorities were looking into whether the fires may have been started deliberately

AMENDOA, Portugal: Planes and helicopters joined more than a thousand firefighters in central Portugal Sunday to battle huge wildfires in a mountainous region where over 100 people died in huge blazes in 2017.
By 12:30 pm (1130 GMT), one of the biggest mobilisations ever seen in the area -- including 1,300 firefighters and 400 vehicles -- had been deployed to fight the blazes in the heavily forested Castelo Branco region, 200 kilometres (120 miles) north of Lisbon, the rescue services said.
Around 20 people were injured in the blaze, including eight firefighters and 12 civilians, according to interior ministry figures.
One badly burned civilian was evacuated by helicopter to Lisbon.
The biggest effort -- 800 firefighters, 245 vehicles and 13 planes and helicopters -- battled to douse flames in the municipality of Vila de Rei, which had spread nearly 25 kilometres.
"Only the fire at Vila de Rei remains active," Interior Minister Eduardo Cabrita told a news conference.
Authorities were looking into whether the fires may have been started deliberately, Cabrita said.
"The cause of the fires is being investigated... there's something strange. How is it that five such large fires broke out in areas that are so close to each other?" he asked.
The commander of the Civil Protection for the region, Luis Belo Costa, said that "given the difficult terrain, we have not succeeded in getting the fire in Vila de Rei under control, but have only contained about 60 percent of it, despite a lull in the wind."
The army said it was dispatching 20 soldiers and machinery to open routes "to facilitate access" for the firefighters.
In a message, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa expressed his "solidarity with the hundreds fighting the scourge of the fires".
Two other forest fires reported on Saturday have since been brought under control.
While a number of small villages were evacuated as a precaution overnight, no additional measures were planned on Sunday.
But that could change "if the situation deteriorates," Belo Costa said.
Five regions of central and southern Portugal were on maximum fire alert Sunday because of the dry weather and winds.
However, temperatures are currently below the threshold of 41 degrees Celsius (105 Fahrenheit) at which a red alert is triggered.
The fires, fanned by strong winds, had broken out on Saturday afternoon in the more inaccessible areas in the Castelo Branco region.
The centre of Portugal is hilly and covered in dense forest and is regularly ravaged by fires, including the deadliest in the country's history where 114 people died in two separate blazes in June and October 2017.
Portugal is still traumatised by those deaths, with authorities taking extra precautions.
Much of the population in the area is elderly, as young people move to the cities.
The forests are largely eucalyptus, a highly flammable wood used in the paper industry.
Despite the combustion risks, the trees are planted because they are fast-growing and represent an important source of income for locals.
With fields and pastures abandoned, the forests are poorly maintained, with the dense undergrowth facilitating the spread of the fires.
According to the EU's European Forest Fire Information System, more than 250,000 hectares of land were destroyed by fire across Europe between January and April this year, more than the 181,000 hectares recorded for the entire fire season in 2018.

Flying Dutch man’s mission to unite firms over climate change

Updated 23 January 2020

Flying Dutch man’s mission to unite firms over climate change

  • Polman has set his sights on using his sway among business chiefs, governments, finance and civil society to get them to work together on climate change and making economies fairer for everyone

DAVOS: While global leaders take to the stage at Davos in the Swiss Alps, one of the world’s most prominent businessmen is busy behind the scenes — trying to bring together the heads of major companies to tackle climate change and inequality.

Paul Polman became known as a leading voice on sustainable capitalism while running consumer goods giant Unilever for 10 years, and is a regular at the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting for the global elite in the upmarket ski resort.

Since retiring from Unilever a year ago, Polman has set his sights on using his sway among business chiefs, governments, finance and civil society to get them to work together on climate change and making economies fairer for everyone.

“If you can bring about 25 percent of the industry together across the value chain, you can create tipping points, and that accelerates things,” Dutch businessman Polman, 63, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview at a Davos hotel.

His new sustainability consultancy, Imagine, set up last year, scored a major victory by organizing a fashion industry pact to announce at the G7 summit in France in August.

The pact involves 62 major fashion companies striving to use sustainable cotton, cut out single-use plastics, and align their businesses with the Paris climate pact to address global warming.

Now Polman wants to convene similar agreements in the food and land sector, tourism and travel, technology and finance, saying these companies had the biggest impact on the UN’s global goals to address inequality and climate change.

He was optimistic an agreement was achievable fairly quickly in the food industry, where he is already well connected as chairman of the Food and Land Use Coalition.

“They all want to be part of it ... six months from now we’ll have a substantial group in the food sector,” he said.

Polman said leaving Unilever had actually given him greater influence to change things for the better.

“As a CEO you had shackles around your legs,” said Polman, who has taken a leading role on a powerful list of bodies including chair of the International Chamber of Commerce.

With global challenges growing, governments could not be relied on, he said, adding that chief executives were starting to step up with bolder initiatives.

He cited Microsoft’s pledge to go carbon-negative by 2050 by removing carbon it has emitted over the past 45 years, and asset manager BlackRock saying it will stop investing in companies with a “high sustainability-related risk.”

“Things are happening at a faster pace than perhaps people think, but the multilateral process is difficult,” he said.

He pointed to disappointment over the recent COP25 climate talks, deforestation rising in Brazil under President Jair Bolsonaro, the US administration quitting the Paris pact, and the Australian government’s reaction over bushfires and climate change.

But there was greater awareness at Davos this year about the need to act, including a commitment to plant one trillion trees to curb climate-heating emissions, he said. “The initiatives are becoming bigger and bolder. Is this enough? No, because you cannot change the world without governments’ buy-in,” he added.