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News & Press: SFPE News

Conference Keynote Presentation to Provide Important Lessons from “Devastating” Fires

Tuesday, March 19, 2019  
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Domingos Viegas, professor at the University of Coimbra, was inspired to talk about “Lessons from the Devastating Fires of 2017 in Portugal” at this year’s SFPE Europe Conference in Malaga, Spain, after “we had two very bad fire events in Portugal in 2017, one in Pedrógão Grande in June that caused the deaths of 66 people and the second in October that involved seven very large fires that destroyed more than 220 thousand hectares in a single day, with another 51 people killed,” he says. “The Portuguese government  asked my team to analyze and report on these major events. These are events that should not be repeated, and there are many lessons that can be learned from them. I feel obliged to make this presentation so more people can be better prepared to face such devastating fires.”

The most critical changes that the fire protection profession must make in fire requirements aimed at preventing or responding better to such devastating fires in the future, according to Viegas, are:

  1. Manage fuel, especially around houses and villages, to minimize the risk of fire when it comes where people live and visit.
  2. Reduce the use of fire that can spread or cause ignitions, such as campfires and outdoor cooking, especially in critical weather conditions.
  3. Prepare communities to be safe in the case of fire, even if they do not have the support of fire suppression agents.  

The lessons learned from the fires of 2017 in Portugal include a number of important steps. “We have to produce better guidelines for locating houses and other buildings in the landscape; develop rules for design, materials, construction and maintenance of houses and annexes for better safety; and provide detection and protection systems to protect people, assets and houses in the event of fires,” Viegas said.

Today’s greatest challenge for scientists in dealing with devastating fires is, Viegas said, “to identify the conditions under which they occur, understand how they propagate, be able to predict them better, and give guidance to authorities and the public about how to cope with them.”

The key takeaway from the 2017 fires in Portugal that could make a substantial difference in the industry is that “the priority is to save human lives,” Viegas said. “The ideal goal is to avoid having operational personnel or civilians be surprised by smoke or fire, so we need to find better ways to alert people and guide their decisions to run away or find shelter in a safe place."

With such goals in mind, Viegas said that fire safety engineers can advance the requirements for preventing or responding to devastating fires by “developing guidelines related to vegetation around houses and other types of buildings (distances, type of vegetation, acceptable load) that could add fuel to a fire; the location of houses; methods and materials of construction; and protective systems to make sure that people who choose to stay home or have no option for running away can shelter at home or at some predefined place in safety.”

Viegas sees the unfortunate natural and human-made disasters that can affect the safety of citizens around the world as the reason it is important to attend the SFPE Europe Conference this year, as well as other professional development events. “Analysis of past events provides scientists and managers with opportunities to learn from good or bad practices and minimize the impact of future events,” he said. “Forest fires are an example of disasters that are becoming more frequent and more dangerous in the present scenario of climate change. Sharing the lessons from the fires of 2017 in Portugal, along with other cases that will be presented at the conference, will serve the objective of improving responses and reducing the impact of devastating fires.”

In essence, Viegas believes that “We have to consider that the conditions under which the devastating fires of 2017 occurred in Portugal may be repeated sooner or later in other places, but we cannot accept that the human disaster and the loss of lives that came with them is repeated.” Be sure to attend his session in Malaga for more insights into these events and, ideally, prevent them or at least reduce their severity. 

Register for the conference here

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