Eleven people have been acquitted in a landmark trial over the devastating fires that hit central Portugal in 2017.
The suspects were all cleared of negligent homicide and “negligent bodily harm” after months of litigation.
Among the defendants on trial were the commander of the municipal fire brigade, local elected officials and employees of electricity distribution and road maintenance companies.
Forest fires in Pedrógão Grande in the central region of Leiria killed 66 people and injured 250 others in June 2017. About 24,000 hectares of land were burned and more than 500 houses were partially or totally destroyed in five days.
Dozens of victims were killed as they were trapped in their cars on the N236 – the so-called ‘road of death’ – when the flames erupted.
Prosecutors had claimed that the fire commander of Pedrógão Grande had underestimated the risk of fire and had delayed the mobilization of resources that could have brought it under control.
Three executives from Ascendi road concessionaire have also been accused of failing to maintain the N236, when a utility company allegedly let their cables come into contact with trees, starting the fire after an electric shock.
But the Leiria court concluded that none of the defendants were responsible for the deaths or injuries “by act or omission”.
“Rare and Unpredictable”
In June 2017, the whole of Portugal suffered its worst drought since 1931, the court said in its verdict on Tuesday.
While there had been failures in preventing and fighting the wildfires, presiding judge Maria Clara Santos said the tragedy was caused by a “unique and totally unpredictable” natural phenomenon of violence.
The fire was caused by “an extreme, rare and unpredictable pyrometeorological phenomenon, which had never been observed before in Portugal or in the whole of the European continent”, she said.
A “fire explosion” was created when the smoke and heat emanating from the fire suddenly fell, Santos added.
The court acknowledged that the companies in charge of maintaining the electricity network and the roads had not fully complied with the rules requiring them to create protective strips without vegetation. But the judge was not convinced that these measures would have effectively slowed the progression of the flames.
The Portuguese Firefighters League had previously said the commander of Pedrógão Grande was “innocent and couldn’t have done better”. On Tuesday, dozens of uniformed firefighters gathered outside the court, forming a guard of honor to express their “silent” solidarity.
Prime Minister António Costa called the disaster “the greatest tragedy of its kind we have seen in recent years” and acknowledged state responsibility.
In October 2017 — just months after the devastation of Pedrógão Grande — more wildfires spread across Portugal, killing 45 people. The families of the victims of the June and October fires received a total of 31 million euros in compensation.
Five years later, locals still fear another disaster. The roads and hills of the Leiria region are still surrounded by dry vegetation and highly flammable eucalyptus plants, which are used for Portugal’s paper industry.
“We look around and see that nothing has really changed,” said Dina Duarte, president of the association of victims of Pedrógão Grande.
“We don’t want more people to die from fire. We want to warn that what happened in 2017 will happen again if there is no prevention.”
On an anniversary marking the fifth anniversary of the tragedy, Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa said the country was now “better able” to cope with the fires.
This year, more than 86,000 hectares of land in Portugal have been destroyed by fire, the most since 2017.
Scientists say global warming is responsible for increasingly hot and dry conditions, making wildfires more frequent and dangerous.