COLUMN ONE : A Plague of Fires Scorches S. Europe : Portugal's forests alone were ravaged by more than 50,000 blazes this summer. Heat fanned them, but greed may have caused many.


The arsonist's fire started on a 100-degree day deep in the Portuguese forest, fanned by a strong, dry easterly wind. Nearby, townsfolk celebrating the annual festival of their patron saint rushed to join the local fire station's bombeiros .

The blaze raced through Vale de Tabuas, the "valley of planks," battled by 50 firefighters and civilians. Suddenly, directly behind them, a new wall of flames appeared. It was a new fire, another arson, and advancing fast.

Momentarily trapped, the men clawed their way through smoke and heat up a steep hill to safety. Three of the villagers who had pitched in to help didn't make it; their bodies were found later among the charred trees.

On that same evening last month, 1,000 fires were burning across Portugal, five in this area. A bad day, to be sure, but part of a disastrous summer for Southern Europe. In Portugal alone, a record 50,794 fires have destroyed forest land nearly twice the size of California's Redwood National Park.

"It's the worst that I can remember in 20 years of firefighting," said Joaquim Chambel, fire chief in these parts.

As California braces for its fire season, the Southern European version is drawing to a close with government officials, firefighters and environmentalists in Portugal, Spain, France and Greece searching the remains of once-lush forests for clues as to why the calamities occurred and which of a surprisingly large number of suspects may be to blame.

Near Marseilles, in southern France, punishing mistral winds fed forest fires that killed two firefighters in August. Forest blazes still rage in parts of Spain, where the number of fires each year has increased tenfold in some regions in the past two decades.

In the mountain suburbs of Athens, four fires destroyed 10,000 acres of forest in July and August, and anarchist groups claimed responsibility. Athens Mayor Dimitris Avramopoulos has predicted that the fires, which wiped out much of the greenbelt around the heavily polluted capital, will have "dramatic ecological consequences."

In Portugal, blazes over the past five years have destroyed an area equal to about half the national parkland in California. Besides the three civilian deaths, three volunteer firefighters were killed in separate car accidents en route to fires.

"We've seen our national heritage being burned away," said Duarte Caldeira, secretary general of the 38,000-member Confederation of Portuguese Firefighters. "It hurts us economically, by destroying our great richness, and also environmentally, by affecting the ecological balance."

Why have the fires this season been so plentiful and devastating? Weather has played a major role. All across Southern Europe, the late summer was unusually hot, dry and windy, creating perfect conditions for fires to spread. Negligence--a spark from an automobile, a discarded cigarette, an unattended campfire--was responsible for some blazes. Others were set by pyromaniacs and people seeking attention.

Fires for Profit

But officials in Portugal and Spain are speaking darkly these days of a "fire industry," a criminal conspiracy to use forest fires for profit. Their list of possible culprits includes everyone who profits from fire. When a fire occurs, the legal restrictions on harvesting forest trees and clearing the land for development go up in smoke. The timber industry uses many of the trees, killed by the heat but not burned, in its mills. Developers can, after a waiting period, build houses and resorts on the cleared land. Even people who sell firefighting products and equipment would have a motive.

A recent poll in Portugal indicated that 85% of the public blames "criminal elements" for the year's fires. Only 14% blame accidents. In all, 50 people are in jail on charges of arson.

"It appears there was an exceptional level of crime involved this year," acknowledged Carlos Loureiro, Portugal's secretary of state for internal affairs and the top government official responsible for preventing and battling fires. "It's possible there are conspiracies. We have a lot of people in jail, but we have no proof yet."

Similar charges are being made in neighboring Spain. The region of Andalusia, for example, had an average of 226 fires a year in the early 1970s. Today, the average is above 1,600. Wood extracted from burned forests nationwide accounts for 15% of the timber industry's annual production.

The Madrid office of the environmental group Greenpeace, in a report in May, blamed the increase in Spain on migration from rural areas to the cities and a government more worried about wood production than about conservation. Greenpeace has called for stronger laws to limit trade in burned wood and place restrictions on the use of burned areas.

The effect of Europe's blazes has been most dramatic in tiny Portugal, where majestic forests blanket nearly half of a country the size of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties. Over the past five years, nearly 3 million of the country's 14 million acres of forest have burned. This year, flames have consumed 184,000 acres, twice as many as last year.

"People in Portugal are resigned," said Loureiro, the Interior Ministry official. "We fight against it every day. Twenty years ago, when the church bell rang [indicating a fire], everyone came to help. Now many people just continue sipping their coffee."

But others are frustrated. Police were called several times in August to dissuade angry villagers from forming posses of vigilantes, or "popular brigades," to catch the arsonists.

Preparedness Push

The irony is that Portugal considered itself well prepared for this fire season.

After the last major outbreak of forest fires, in 1991, the government invested heavily in new equipment and in training firefighters, about 90% of whom are volunteers. Fire stations this year received 5,000 more firefighters, and authorities created 200 new investigative teams, each composed of one forestry official and one police detective.

Portugal also has a new law that imposes a 10-year waiting period before developers can take over a burned forest. But, given the amount of money that can be made, some say 10 years isn't enough.

Critics contend that the government spends too much money on combatting fires and not enough on detection and prevention. "If that were reversed, it would definitely put us on the right road to ending the tragic destruction of our natural environment," said Jose Alho, vice president of Quercus, a private nature conservation group in Lisbon.

Experts here blame this summer's surge on the weather, of course, but also on historical factors. With people moving from forests to small regional centers and large cities, the pine trees have lost their traditional guardians, who once cut roads and used brush and dead trees for cooking and heat.

Another problem is that, unlike in American states, most of the Portuguese forest is privately owned. There are 600,000 private forests, most smaller than an acre and often ignored by owners. That makes forestry management almost impossible. "We have owners of forest land who don't know where the forest is," one government official complained.

These vast, unpopulated forests are ready-made for arsonists, whether motivated by thrill or profit--or both.

While most agree that arson is on the increase, police haven't arrested many culprits and, as one police officer put it, "you practically have to catch them in the act to convict."

Still, many fires in Portugal this year have been suspicious. As many as half started in the middle of the night. Many occurred in areas inaccessible to fire equipment and on days when climatic conditions were especially prime for a fire to spread. Often, three or four fires broke out simultaneously, several miles apart.

Investigators found incendiary devices in the rubble, some attached to small parachutes and others with slow-burning rubber fuses. Rural people say they have seen hunting dogs, tails set ablaze by arsonists, racing through the forests starting fires.

Epidemic of Arson

The Vale de Tabuas fire, about 100 miles northeast of Lisbon, occurred three days after another inferno had been extinguished a few miles away. It had rained on intervening days, making it unlikely that Vale de Tabuas was a continuation of the first fire. "It's very hard," said Chief Chambel. "It's very difficult to accept that all the work we did to stop the first fire was for nothing."

Jesuvina and Antonio Valentina, one of the rare couples who dwell in the forest, were in their crumbling stone house when the racing flames arrived. It wasn't their first experience with fire, but it was their closest call.

"My husband said, 'This time we're going to be burned alive,' " Jesuvina, 62, recalled recently. "I got down on my knees and prayed to Our Lady of Mercy. We didn't die here, roasted, because God didn't want us yet."

Her good fortune was evident as she spoke, surrounded by a hillside of trees colored in beige, brown, olive, rust--and black.

"I don't know the motivation of the people who set these fires," Chambel said, carefully putting out his cigarette in the soil near the Valentinas' house. "Some may want to plant wood for harvest. Some are crazy. But it could be for another reason. There are many jobs associated with fires. Helicopters. Planes. Flame retardant. Equipment. New telephone cables. Nobody can guess."

Chambel's 100-person crew, many of whose members have received training from California Department of Forestry officials, battled 263 fires over the summer. So far, though, no one has been arrested here for arson.

The fire that trapped the three civilian firefighters appeared to have been an amateurish attempt to create a fire wall, a burned patch of land that would stop the first fire. But it was too close to the original fire and simply fed the flames.

"We interviewed everyone, and no one could tell us how it happened," Chambel said. He added ruefully, "It was a magic fire."

When the valley blaze was extinguished, 50 hours later, it had destroyed more than 1,000 acres.

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