One of the unsung heroes of the fires in Portugal: “It’s not right to become famous for this” | International
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Nobody will be able to tell João Paulo Ruivo what Rafael Chirbes wrote in Crematorium: “Nothing better will happen to you because you are afraid.” Faced with the live fire that surrounded the houses of Boa Vista, a village in Leiria, in central Portugal, on Tuesday, Ruivo did not think of fear, but of solidarity. Accompanied by other relatives and friends, he helped rescue all the people and animals in the area that were in danger. He was not the only one, but he has become the most popular, after being photographed by photographer Paulo Cunha, who works for the Efe agency, as he walked away from the smoke with a wounded sheep on his shoulders. A powerful photo, that has an air of the Old Testament or of The odyssey, for reflecting the triumph of will over adversity. It has already become the most emblematic image of this wave of fires, the most severe that Portugal has faced since 2017, when more than half a million hectares burned.
“At that time I was focused on wanting to help others, it was a nice gesture on my part, but I don’t want to be the main face of this tragic accident. It is not correct to be famous for a fire, because then firefighters should be famous”, he commented this Thursday in Boa Vista, 48 hours after the event and shortly after finishing his working day. Ruivo, who is 22 years old and has been working for three years in the metallic carpentry shop of his uncle António de él, bears the media attention with regret. He avoids interviews, although he agreed to talk with EL PAÍS. “People think I want this fame and I don’t want it, it’s not for me. We were many colleagues who did the work that the firefighters did not do because they could not get everywhere, “he explains shortly before meeting two other participants in Tuesday’s relief operation, Diogo Coelho and Diogo Viana, who carries another sheep that suffered burns in the fire.
It was not easy to rescue the animals: “They were fenced in, nervous and could not see well.” The sheep she carried on her back was injured. The herd (about 40 goats and 20 sheep) that they saved ended up protected on the farm behind the metal carpentry workshop of António Ruivo, who also participated in the solidarity rescue in Boa Vista. “There were firefighters somewhere, but they can’t be everywhere. Many serious situations were avoided here thanks to the intervention of the neighbors,” says António Ruivo. “It was harrowing,” he adds. Like his nephew’s, he downplays what they did: “When you do that it’s not a matter of pride, you just want to help.”
João Paulo Ruivo was immortalized by a photographer during his action and has been able to be identified, but for a week there have been dozens of anonymous Portuguese who have been fighting the fire with whatever they have at hand to get where the firefighters do not. The intensity of the wave became so high that on Wednesday a fire was recorded every 10 minutes, according to calculations by the newspaper Public. Despite reinforcements from the military and international air assets from Spain and Italy, the fires grew faster than the professional response capacity. Many Portuguese used branches, buckets and garden hoses to contain the flames. If behind a fire there can be the worst – a criminal or negligent hand -, the best can also be found. “In Boa Vista we responded as a family”, says João Paulo Ruivo, who is convinced that the fire had an intentional origin.
A few kilometers from Boa Vista, Ana Maria Gameiro watched the flames and smoke with horror that Tuesday. From outside her house, which is also close to a forest area, she recorded several videos with her phone.
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Despite the seriousness of the fires, until Thursday only one woman had died, found charred on a corn farm, in an episode that the authorities do not relate to this wave. The death registered this Friday is: around 8:00 p.m., an amphibious plane, which was participating in an extinction event in the Guarda district, fell on some vineyards in Vila Nova de Foz Côa and caused the death of the pilot, the commander of the André Serra Air Forces. The aircraft had just been supplied with water in the Duero River moments before the accident. “You cannot imagine the conditions in which they have to operate,” commented the President of the Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, who described all the professionals who fight fires as “heroes.”
Portugal remains at extreme risk, but advances in fire control
Portugal has managed to control the fires in the country, but is studying whether to maintain the restrictions of the state of contingency in the face of the threat of the reactivation of the fires, which is still “extreme”. Although the high temperatures have dropped -after reaching records of up to 47 degrees in recent days-, the wind and the drought leave “still extreme conditions” at risk, Commander André Fernandes, of the National Emergency and Civil protection.
“We are still analyzing the situation,” said Fernandes, in line with what the government had advanced, which will study this weekend if it maintains the state of contingency in force until Sunday. “This weekend will be one of extreme vigilance,” warned the commander, although the fires that threatened several areas in the north of the country this Saturday are already under control.
The Nature and Forest Conservation Institute counted 30,413 hectares affected by the flames as of Thursday. The Portuguese authorities estimated this Saturday that some 38,000 hectares have been burned since January, more than during all of 2021 as a whole.
The number of fires between January and the first fortnight of July this year is 6,051, only surpassed in the last five years by the 8,643 registered in the same period of disastrous 2017, when in addition to the impact on human lives, more than half a million were burned. of hectares. Since 2017, the dramatic year recorded in the memory of Portugal by the death of 66 people in a fire in Pedrógão Grande, the country has not witnessed such a serious and concentrated wave of forest fires, which has forced the evacuation of 865 people , has caused injuries to 190 and has caused the death of the pilot of an amphibious plane that participated in the extinction of a fire in Guarda, in the center of the country.
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