CALIFORNIA—The 2017 fire season was the worst ever for Portugal, resulting in 110 deaths and 1.3 million acres burned in a country roughly the size of the state of Indiana. The fire season had two major fire outbreaks; one in June, which killed more than 60 people, and one in October, which killed nearly 45. Forty-seven of the June deaths occurred on a highway due to inadequate evacuation planning. In October, people were killed in a wind-driven fire event, which was bolstered by the remains of an eastern Atlantic hurricane.
Also in 2017, two of the most historic fire events in California fire history occurred. On Sunday, Oct. 8, a series of wildfires ignited, devastating approximately 245,000 acres of northern California. In December, the Thomas Fire, considered to be the largest California fire in modern recorded history, burned throughout the heavily populated Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. Subsequent rainstorms have caused flash floods and mudslides leading to additional significant damage and loss of life.
The American embassy in Portugal arranged for a three-person team of Forest Service wildfire experts to travel to the southern European country to observe the effects of their 2017 fire season. The technical team provided Portuguese officials with recommendations to improve their fire management systems across the response, rehabilitation and recovery spectrum. One recommendation was that Portuguese officials from various agencies that deal with wildfire visit the United States to observe wildland fire management strategies, procedures and practices.
Portuguese officials representing agriculture, forestry and emergency response, firefighters and political analysts visited the U.S. in April 2018. After a brief stop at the National Interagency Fire Center, the delegates made their way to the Pacific Southwest Region of the Forest Service. The group was treated to presentations and site visits across California that stimulated dialogue around the topics of Firewise communities, emergency response training and qualifications, decision support mechanisms, the Incident Command System, post-fire rehabilitation issues and wildland-urban interface.
While in California, the delegates visited the Wildland Fire Training Center, Cal Fire aviation base at McClellan, California Office of Emergency Services Operations Center and the site of the Santa Rosa area fires near Napa. The striking similarities between challenges faced by both countries in their efforts to respond to extremely complex fire situations over the last year became very clear as the delegates met with professional fire responders, planners, trainers and strategists from the Forest Service, Cal Fire and OES.