Since Saturday, a wildfire has been hitting the centre of Portugal. More than 1,000 firefighters are battling this blaze, at least 64 people have passed away, and more than 130 people have been injured. Considering the impacts of this catastrophe, Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa has called for help and asked for international assistance. The European Union answered this call and has activated its Civil Protection Mechanism.
The heat of the last days combined with windy conditions have made the fire hard to control: despite the work of the firefighters and the planes used to drop water, the fire is still alive and only 70% is under control by now. The government has declared a state of emergency in the forested region around Pedrógão Grande, and a three days mourning state for the great loss the country has suffered.
How has the European Union reacted to this disaster?
The European Union has rapidly reacted to this disaster. The EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides expressed his condolences for the victims in a statement, saying the « EU is fully ready to help. » European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker sent a letter to Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, expressing « profound sadness » for the fire in Pedrogao Grande and offering « most felt solidarity. » He also wrote in that letter that « Our thoughts are with all the victims, their families and all the brave soldiers of peace that in a very difficult terrain and under challenging circumstances continue to fight this terrible fire.
Portugal activated the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism on the 18th of June, 2017, requesting firefighting aircraft, and firefighters. The European Commission, through its 24/7 Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC), has been in constant contact with EU Member States to channel support through the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism. A liaison officer from the ERCC has arrived in the country to help coordinate offers of assistance. In addition to the fire-extinguishing aircrafts Spain was already planning on furnishing, France, Spain and Italy have decided to provide Portugal with a total of seven planes.
What is the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism?
The EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism is meant to improve to coordination, the effectiveness and the efficiency of a response to a disaster. When a country struggles to cope with that disaster alone, it can ask for support though this system. It can be deployed in the European Union and in the world. It avoids the duplication of efforts and ensures that the assistance meets the needs of the affected country. It finally helps preventing and prepare for potential disasters through training and through the exchange of experts and knowledge. The assistance can consist of items for immediate relief as well as experts and supporting intervention teams. To allow for a faster and more predictable EU response to disasters, the European Emergency Response Capacity (EERC) was created: it is a voluntary pool of pre-committed resources from the countries participating in the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. The European Medical Corps is part of the EERC. Since 2011, following requests for assistance, the EU Civil Protection Mechanism has been activated 230 times. Recent examples include the Ebola outbreak in West Africa (2014), the flooding in Western Balkans (2014), conflict in Eastern Ukraine (2015) and the European refugee crisis (2015).