Twelve face trial over Portugal wildfires: prosecutors

Lisbon (AFP) –


Twelve people including three commanders of Portugal's civil protection agency will stand trial over the country's worst ever wildfires which claimed 64 lives in June 2017, prosecutors said Thursday.

The accused, who face charges of negligent homicide, also include three local officials and three employees of a company in charge of the maintenance of a road where some 50 people died in the blaze in the central Leiria region, the local prosecutor's office said.

"It seems to me that this is the first time that public bodies are targeted by charges of this kind," Domingos Xavier Viegas, coordinator an inquiry commissioned by the Parliament, told AFP.

"I think it is important to determine responsibility... this case should serve as an example and a starting point," Viegas added.

The fires burned for five days, breaking out at the height of a summer heatwave. Many of the victims died trapped in their cars while trying to escape the flames.

- Serious failings -

Violent winds fanned the fires, ravaging some 460 square kilometres (180 square miles) of hillsides covered with pine and eucalyptus trees.

According to local media, the prosecutors' investigation largely mirrored the findings of an earlier inquiry by a special parliamentary commission, which found serious failings in officials' handling of the fires.

The parliamentary report said electrical surges from the power distribution network had caused the blaze.

Two civil protection agency officials and the commander of a volunteer fire regiment have been accused by the prosecutors office of not calling in water bombers fast enough to try to control the fires.

They are also accused of not requesting weather forecast updates that theoretically could have helped officials anticipate the path of the flames.

A mayor, a former mayor and a deputy mayor also face charges of failing to implement fire prevention measures, in particular forest cleaning, which may have helped slow the spread of the flames.

- Government criticism -

Months after the disaster, a new series of deadly wildfires broke out in the centre and north of the country in October, killing another 45 people.

Interior minister Constanca Urbano de Sousa resigned that month amid criticism over the Socialist government's handling of the fires.

"Nothing can remain as before," Prime Minister Antonio Costa said at the time.

The government has since implemented a series of safety measures to avoid another tragedy and launched an ambitious reforestation project.

Thee measures include improving coordination between the military and firefighters in the use of water bombers, burying communication lines to prevent them being cut off by fires and boosting funding for professional firefighters -- currently most are volunteers.

The number of fires in Portugal has significantly reduced this summer, with burned areas down 60 percent compared to the average of the last ten years, according the Institute of Conservation Nature and Forests.