As thousands of Portuguese protested on Saturday over the government’s handling of massive wildfires that have killed 108 people since June, government ministers pledged to spend more than 400 million euros (US$470 million) in aid.
The decision, announced during a special Cabinet meeting which continued into the night, came on the same day as a new interior minister took over after his predecessor resigned, and ahead of tomorrow’s parliamentary vote on a motion of no-confidence launched by the opposition.
Earlier thousands of protesters gathered on Lisbon’s main Comercio square, in Porto and other cities to mourn the victims of the Portugal’s worst tragedy in living memory and demand better fire prevention policies in the country, which despite its relatively small size has suffered the largest forest fires in Europe this year.
“Enough! Too many deaths, too much destruction!” read many slogans.
A few called for the government’s resignation.
The Cabinet considered a detailed report by independent experts on the first wave of forest fires in June when 64 people died in central Portugal, and the first official accounts of the more widespread fires on Sunday and Monday last week, which killed 44.
The main report pointed to failures on practically every level from fire prevention and monitoring during an unusually hot and dry summer to civil protection response, emergency communications and the alerting of the population.
The government on Saturday decided to hire hundreds of forest sappers to maintain forests and to prevent fires, ordered a major clean-up of safety strips along motorways and railroads and promised to support the collection of forest waste for bio-refineries.
The state will also take a sizeable stake in the emergency communications network SIRESP, whose equipment failed on many occasions during the fires. Another likely measure would put the air force in charge of firefighting aircraft which are currently hired and managed by the civil protection service, media said.
The promised state aid for affected areas includes paying compensation to the families who lost relatives and homes, funding for reconstruction works and support to save local jobs.
The minority Socialist government has been weakened by the public clamor, but the impact on its strong approval ratings achieved due to an improving economy has been limited so far.
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