The last two days were somewhat scary. Criminals have – for the umpteenth time – started forest fires in Madeira. Little can be said about the motives. But angry tongues do say that there are companies on Madeira that make a lot of money by repairing damage caused by fire. And when they say to a poor slob ‘here you have 50 euros, set the place on fire’ they have little resistance against it.
This time it was in Ponta do Pargo, not far from here. As the crow flies 3.5 kilometres from our house, but fortunately separated from us by a couple of spectacularly beautiful and deep gorges. Since Monday morning at the crack of dawn, a large area was on fire. Then you know it”s arson. It’s still dark, nobody is burning a piece of land in order to clean it – because that sometimes gets out of hand – and there’s not a piece of glass in the sun, because it hasn’t risen yet.
no helicopter, so who fights the fire in Madeira?
In the end, no less than six fire brigades fought the fire, and they were very busy for 48 hours. Madeira is currently suffering from a not uncommon weather phenomenon, that lately seems to occur more often than normal: Leste. This is a strong easterly wind, which occurs when the Azores High is too far north and the wind turns east instead of the prevailing northeast. Then hot air is brought in from the Sahara, with quite a lot of dust, so that the usual cooling does not take place during the night. The island was already dry due to less rainfall than usual this winter, but the Leste makes it dry out even more, so an ideal starting point for a fire. The strong wind made fighting the fires extremely difficult, and the fact that fires always start in one or more of the many inaccessible valleys makes extinguishing the fires even more difficult in the early stages. Unless, of course, there is a fire-fighting helicopter on the island.
the government’s hidden agenda
For incomprehensible reasons, the deployment of a helicopter on the island has been obstructed for years by the regional government. There surely is a hidden agenda. Some say that the always corrupt PSD government has ties with companies that make a lot of money repairing damage caused by the forest fire. That would be reason enough not to want a helicopter. But when in 2016, the summer fires were so intense that parts of the capital Funchal were affected, the pressure of public opinion became too great. The government had no choice but to start trials with fire-fighting planes, and despite their fake objections, they were, of course, a great success. Tobi Hughes posted an article about it in his Madeira Island News at the time. But the helicopters are only on the island for four months a year. This latest big fire in Ponta do Pargo has once again raised big questions about that. As long as the fires in Madeira are confined to the forest and nature reserve, Madeira’s frenzy will remain fairly chilled. But as soon as houses and possessions are endangered, politicians are called to account. And so it is now. And yes, the president of Madeira has now said that he is considering keeping the helicopter here all year round. But he says that it would be nice if money would be made available by the central government in Lisbon. Those are – as usual with politicians – very hollow remarks. Seeing is believing. Because a forest fire on Madeira is still lucrative for some.
who pays the damage?
One story that has to be told here is the scandalous attitude of the Portuguese insurers in case of fire in Madeira, or in case of damage caused by storms or excessive rain. If you think you’ve insured your house well for this sort of thing, then you’ve been deceived. The Portuguese insurer will point out that the fire was set. And then they will tell you to go and claim your damages with the arsonist. We found this out when a roof of a chicken coop of our neighbours came loose during a storm and damaged our eaves. The insurance company simply said: ‘go to the neighbours, it’s their fault’. And the neighbours said, ‘it’s caused by the storm. Not our fault. There’s nothing we can do about that’. This kind of practice is not very well known in Madeira either. Our taxman, whose son is an insurance agent, didn’t even know this. When we told him, he drummed up his son who unfortunately confirmed the story. Since then, we have been insured with the British Intasure (being Dutch we used the Dutch agent), who insures houses abroad and also covers consequential damage in the form of lost rental income, for example.
Meanwhile, the fires in Ponta do Pargo are largely under control. Not quite, there is still one active fire that is being fought with man and power. We are waiting – unfortunate for our guests this spring – for serious rain that the island really needs. If we won’t have enough rain this winter, there will be a lot of fires in Madeira this summer. Fortunately, nature on Madeira will soon draw a veil over the burnt earth. But rain is needed, and a lot, to cure the damage caused by the latest fire.
latest news: arson more than likely, says the population of Ponta do Pargo
This afternoon, the story came into my knowledge, that a large chunk of the land, that has been destroyed by the fires of the last three days, had been bought by AFAS, a very large and powerful construction company, owned by Mr Avelino. The land is situated in the vicinity of a possible future golf course. Mr Avelino wanted to build new hotels and houses on the land but did not get the necessary permissions because the land was designated ‘Area Rural’, which means that only existing houses can be reconstructed, but no new projects are allowed, in order to protect this land’s character.
By setting it all ablaze, all existing nature has been destroyed, so now, the population of the affected Ponta do Pargo reckon, Mr Avelino will try again to get the necessary permissions, as nothing needs to be destroyed that is no longer there anyway. Obviously, we will never have any proof of this being the truth, but in view of the way the few families that own much of the island usually act to get their way, this would not be very surprising and certainly not be unheard of in Madeira. If this is the case, we can only hope that this time around, the government will not bend to money and keep the ‘area rural’ rules in place for Mr Avelino, like it would for anyone else less wealthy. We shall watch the developments closely and keep you informed.
We took a drive today, 10/02/20 and were shocked at the extent of the fires, some still smouldering. We weren’t sure if it was a managed burn but the extent of damage made me think it wasn’t. The damage to natural habitats was very distressing to see and some very close calls to homes as well. I don’t know the politics but if these unscrupulous people get their hands on the land it will be a slippery slope to capitalism getting it’s greedy hands on a beautiful , unspoilt part of the world.
Yes, Tracey, we passed through that area the other day as well, and it is a sorry sight. The politics are simple: the wealthy lot that purchased the land did not get permission to build the hotels and houses they wanted to build. Reason: the area is designated ‘area rural’. Only old houses may be done up. So what do you do: set the land alight, and then you can tell the authorities you won’t destroy any nature by building stuff, as it is no longer there.
Fact is the fire brigades cannot reach the steep valleys as there are no roads, so the only thing they can do is try to save the houses, which is what they did. What I try to do in my article – and I will continue to do so, is exposed these sharks for what they are. You can help by sharing the article as much as possible.
Thank you Peter. Bless you. This was/is so typical of southern european countries.
I hope a journalist brings the next big fire to euro-wide attention. When tourism gets hurt then the Goverment will have to act. I wish permanent Madeirans were more interested in their local politics, but as they say “money talks.” Is there an MEP in Brussels for the Madeiran district? I would like to write to them.
All the best.
You are welcome, Marcus. The only thing we can do, really, is exposing those greedy people for what they are, Unfortunately, the regional government has a way of ignoring anything inconvenient to their political (or hidden) agendas. Nepotism and corruption still flourish here. thanks to the internet and social media, more and more of this misbehaviour is discussed openly, but, unfortunately, the Madeiran voters are guided by fear for their ‘superiors’, as they see them. They keep voting for the corrupt little incestuous clique of the PSD-M who are financed by the Grupo Sousa, one of these excessively wealthy families and thus keep them in power. As for MEP’s, they have an equally bad track record, being more interested in what to wear in Brussels than defending the interests of the people of Madeira. Maybe you should subsribe to this blog, as I will certainly reveal more of these politicians’ misbehaviour in the near future.
So sorry to read your article about the fires, last year l saw how difficult it is to put fires out even using the helicopter. Then the insurers refusing to pay out. It spoils the reputation of such a beautiful island. I regularly visit Madeira 3 or more times a year.
Indeed, Pamela, it is devastating to see how large portions of the island are ruined by fire, sometimes by negligence, sometimes by sheer criminal conduct. I gained some information that made me add a last paragraph. The only thing we can do to not harm the island’s reputation further is to try to expose the ones at the root of this evil and despicable conduct. As always, it is the already excessively wealthy whose greed is the most harmful.