Fire risk in Portugal: Legal obligations and prevention

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As much as we love the beautiful rural areas of Central Portugal, with their vast wooded expanses, we can not deny the fact that we face the risk of wildfires. Unfavorable climatic conditions and extensive forest heritage render the territory particularly vulnerable to this type of catastrophe. However, despite the challenge of containment, it is possible to prevent and mitigate the risk of fire by implementing measures throughout the year to minimize potential damages.

Preventing rural fires is a continuous and comprehensive task. Regular maintenance of forested areas should be the immediate priority for any landowner to protect their assets, alongside implementing long-term measures to mitigate risks and strengthen forest resilience.

In Portugal, there are specific legal obligations related to fire prevention. One of the most important measures is the creation of protection strips and clearing around properties. These strips serve as a physical barrier against fire spread, enabling firefighters to have a higher likelihood of controlling fires in case of an outbreak.

The obligations clearly define that owners in breach face fines and coercive measures. Here are the main obligations:

  • Cutting weeds, shrubs, undergrowth, among other vegetative materials, in a strip with a width not less than 50 meters around buildings located in rural or forested areas (e.g., houses, warehouses, workshops, factories, among other facilities). This protection strip is measured from the exterior masonry of that facility;
  • Trimming tree branches up to four meters above the ground if they are eight meters or taller, or up to 50% of their height if they are less than eight meters;
  • Spacing trees four meters apart (ten meters in the case of stone pines or eucalyptus, due to their high flammability);
  • Cutting trees and shrubs within five meters of the building, ensuring that branches do not project onto the roof;
  • Shrubs should not exceed 50 centimeters in height, reduced to 20 centimeters for herbaceous species;
  • Creating a paved strip around the aforementioned buildings from one to two meters, if possible;
  • Cleaning up leftovers after clearing.

Cleaning should not be indiscriminate, however. Legally protected species like cork oaks or holm oaks, among others, require authorization from the Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests (ICNF) for cutting. Trees of public interest, such as certain olive trees due to their age, are also specially protected and marked with an identifying plaque. The same applies to properly maintained gardens, fruit trees and agricultural areas. However, these have some exceptions, for example, if they are fallow.

Mountainous areas are naturally more vulnerable to fires due to a greater diversity of factors affecting fire behavior, such as slope and wind direction and speed. However, even in these cases, there are areas more resistant to fire. North-facing slopes, with less exposure to sunlight, are generally more humid, cooler, less wind-exposed, and with less vegetation. When exposed to fire, fires have lower speed and lower probability of spread.

Regarding making the property more fire-resistant, you should aim to reduce the tree density on the property and keep the land as clear as possible of shrubs and other ground-level species.

In addition to removing fuel from the ground, this will allow fire-resistant trees and other species to grow naturally and eventually limit the existence of ground vegetation.

Although it is a long-term task, it is essential to restore the natural resilience of your property by removing invasive and non-native species, such as acacias or eucalyptus, and replacing them with species such as oaks, chestnuts, cork oaks, holm oaks, fruit trees, among others.

If there are monocultures of stone pines, you should also seek to break these lines, possibly keeping some specimens, but breaking their continuity with the aforementioned native species. Keep paths and firebreaks clean to facilitate firefighters’ access in case of emergency. Other measures include installing irrigation systems, creating refuge zones, and using fire-resistant building materials.

In summary, rural fire risk in Portugal is a reality that cannot be ignored. However, through appropriate preventive measures and proactive actions by landowners, it is possible to significantly reduce the damage caused by forest fires.


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