Pedrógão Grande - forest fires, climate kids and vscocams

November 29, 2017

Sat 25th - 21kms


I landed in Lisbon on Friday afternoon and headed straight down to Pedrógão Grande. The region is a hub for Portugal’s wood industry and was engulfed by wildfire earlier this year. The wildfires were the deadliest wildfires in the country’s history, the extent and severity of which has been linked to human-induced climate change.


Following the wildfires, a group of schoolchildren from the region banded together and sought crowdfunding to sue 47 European countries, alleging that the states’ failure to tackle climate change is threatening their future. The climate case will be heard in the European Court of Human Rights. One of these kids was Andre, who after hearing about the Climate Run, said this:


“I don't know what a marathon is but I can imagine it's very exhausting and loooooong, it makes me think why people do such a thing. But then I remember that our action must be a marathon, maybe I'll be a teenager by the time we win (yes, we will win!) it will be a looooooong run, maybe sometimes I'll feel tired of it but then I must remind myself and the other kids that it's a run for our lives, for everybody's lives, for saving our forests from being burned and our rivers from drying out and also, we need good ideas to fight against the storms, maybe some technology like my drone idea, I don't know, what else can we invent?” 


As if suing some of the largest governments in the world at 9 years old isn’t enough, Andre appears to have used a metaphor that would rival that used in any 7th form creative writing assignment. You can read more about the case, here.  Rosa had initially suggested that I start a separate social media account for this run and put website links, such as this one, in the bio. Prior to this conversation, I had never understood what people meant when they would refer to a “link in bio”. Where is this elusive bio and why must I navigate my way to it to access said link? (It also seemed like only very cool people would have a link in bio, the same people who would #vscocam. Honestly, what is a vscocam.)


As I ran past scorched trees and barren landscapes, I witnessed the huge areas of vegetation that had been lost. Over 100 people died in the two separate forest fires that raged through areas of Portugal in June and October and 230,000 hectares of forest was destroyed (that’s the equivalent of 230,000 rugby fields!). Climate change has contributed to warmer air, making vegetation dryer and more flammable and wildfire seasons longer and more intense. This effect is acutely apparent in Portugal where the wildfire season has more than doubled in the past 50 years. Warmer temperatures also increase lightning activity (for every degree the temperature rises, there is a 12% increase in lightning), again increasing the likelihood of fires.

Portugal isn’t the only country experiencing climate change-fueled fires. Many others have recently recorded some of their worst-ever fire seasons, including Canada, the US, Chile and Australia. In Canada, the wildfire season now starts a month earlier than it used to and the average annual area burned has doubled since 1970. The amount of bad fire years like 2017 is set to increase by the middle of this century. In British Columbia, tens of thousands of people were displaced from their homes due to wildfire this year. As at 15 August, it was estimated that 845,000 hectares had been burned and over $300 million spent in fire suppression costs this year in BC alone.


Further worsening climate change, wildfires result in the carbon that is stored in trees being released back into the air (boreal forests contain nearly 30% of all the world’s carbon stored on land). This additional carbon in the atmosphere further warms the globe creating a feedback cycle that drives temperatures higher and raises fire risks even further.


As I ran, I witnessed farmers and other locals working together to clear the charred trees and debris. There are a number of knock-on effects from a loss of vegetation such as this.  Life-supporting habitats and ecosystems are destroyed and biodiversity is endangered. The run-off from the fires also carries damaging sediments into lakes and reservoirs, poisoning drinking water and resulting in a change in algae and fish abundance. Further, the smoke released from fires has huge impacts on air quality, even thousands of miles away.


However, not all wildfires are bad. Fire is a natural part of many ecosystems, playing an important role in regeneration and maintaining biodiversity. Perceived public safety concerns have seen an increasing movement to suppress all natural forest fires, some of which are necessary in order to burn off high grass and undergrowth, excess "fuel" that could turn the naturally occurring fires into out-of-control infernos. Government controlled fires are often lit to accomplish the same thing. Negligence on behalf of the Portuguese government and a lack of adequate forest management have been cited as further reasons for the extent of the fires in Portugal, and this is part of the reason that this amazing group of schoolchildren has decided to bring forward this case.


 In short, climate change is sparking more frequent and more intense wildfires, and extending wildfire seasons. I experienced firsthand the effect that these recent fires in Portugal had on not only the environment, but industry and the people living in the area. However I also saw the impact that even a small group of schoolchildren can have. It makes me feel slightly ashamed looking back at my 9-year-old self who was spending my pocket money on chatter rings and furbys, rather than the protection of future generations... 

A huge thanks to Andre, Simao, Leonor,

Mariam, Martim, Claudia and Sofia, and all the

others involved, for taking on the big guys and

bringing this climate case.

You guys are amazing!! 













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