In Portugal Another Season of Forest Fires

For the third summer in a row, Portugal is coping with deadly forest fires. Five European countries have sent water-dumping aircraft to help. Strong winds, high temperatures and the worst drought in nearly 60 years are complicating the task. Hundreds of thousands of acres of forestland have been destroyed - and flames have encroached on Portugal's third largest city Coimbra.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

For the third summer in a row, Portugal is coping with deadly forest fires. Five European countries have sent water-dumping aircraft to help. Strong winds, high temperatures and the worst drought in nearly 60 years are complicating the task. Hundreds of thousands of acres of forestland have been destroyed and flames have encroached on Portugal's third largest city, Coimbra. That's where reporter Jerome Socolovsky joins me from now.

Good morning, Jerome.

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY reporting:

Good morning, Renee. I'm standing in a small village about 15 miles outside of Coimbra, and basically the whole area around here is a very rich forest that has been burnt to the ground. There's a very thick pall of smoke which smells kind of like a mixture of menthol and charcoal because there are quite a few eucalyptus trees in the forest. You can just see from what has happened that it--there was a very powerful blaze that swept through here, even jumped across rivers, I would say, about between 30 and 70 yards. The riverbed is OK. The trees there are green, but the slopes on both side are all black.

MONTAGNE: And elsewhere in Portugal, how much damage is there?

SOCOLOVSKY: Most of the damage is in this area in central Portugal. There are three fires still out of control outside of Coimbra and then another eight fires or so in the central area. So far, authorities say that 15 people have died as a result of these fires, including 11 firefighters. Just yesterday, a 40-year-old man was run over by a fire truck and an 88-year-old woman was found dead. She was apparently fleeing the flames. The fires have destroyed around 300,000 acres this year. That's more than all of last year in Portugal. And it's also bad just across the border in Spain, in Galicia and Andalusia, two bordering regions where another 270,000 acres have been destroyed.

MONTAGNE: And this drought, which, as we've just said, is the worst in many--in decades, what is its role in these forest fires?

SOCOLOVSKY: Well, these are normally very lush regions, both here in Portugal and just across the border in Spain. In this area, you can see the drought has left dried eucalyptus leaves and even dead ferns that just burnt up as tinder and let the whole forest catch fire very quickly. Experts say that the reason that the government--that the authorities are having such a difficult time is that here in Portugal they don't even know, in many cases, who owns a lot of this forestland. Much of it has been abandoned and there's no central land registry of ownership. So they can't go out and force people to take measures, like having fire walls, cleared-away lanes to prevent fire from spreading. In Spain, there's new legislation that's proposed and it's going to be discussed this autumn to have a 30-year gap between a fire destroying a land and it being reclassified as an urban area. This seems to be an incentive for many people to set fire, to commit arson and burn up wooded areas so it can be developed later.

MONTAGNE: Jerome, there's flooding in central Europe. It must be strange to have drought and forest fires there in Portugal.

SOCOLOVSKY: Indeed, it is very strange here for Portuguese. There's a lot of talk about that in the media here about climate change. But experts say that you can't associate a specific environmental occurrence with climate change, so there's nothing conclusive on that front.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much. Reporter Jerome Socolovsky talking to us from Coimbra, Portugal.

SOCOLOVSKY: Thank you, Renee.

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