Everyone will have followed the news on the two major fires to have hit the country so far this year. Portugal currently is at maximum fire risk. To raise awareness of the work done by the Bombeiros, we have this special report from the founder and president of the Alerta Facebook group, Debbie Burton. In 2019 Debbie was awarded the British Empire medal, by Her Majesty the Queen, for services to the community in the Algarve.
When Alerta was founded in 2013, on Facebook, it was a small group, relying on eyewitness reports such as “there is smoke”, or “I can see a helicopter”.
As we progressed, in numbers and experience, things improved. We discovered the ANEPC page, which is the most reliable, factual and up to date.
It was just myself running the page until 2017 when the member numbers began to expand, and I realised I needed help. I asked a couple of friends to help me and a couple of ladies who had offered their time. The Alerta page as we know it today is thanks to Jacky Baker, Karen Howard Goldsmith, Barbara Leitch, Paula Mullin, Mike Eden and Michelle Wainwright.
During the fire of 2017 in Monchique, we collected and delivered food, snacks, water and toiletries, every day to the Bombeiros.
We would post our collection points on Facebook every morning. Then either me and my husband Andrew, the late Greg Mckenzie Brown and Regina Zimmerman, would wait in supermarket car parks. People would come and give us donations, then we would take them to a station agreed with the Bombeiros, for transporting up to Monchique.
After 2017, we realised we needed to form an association and Associação para Alerta de incendio Florestal /Forest fire Alert was born. In 2018 the Algarve was severely tested, as was the Bombeiros and Alerta. On 3 August at 13.32, a fire started in the hills behind Monchique. It would burn for 10 days and travel down to and beyond Silves. It took 1492 personnel to put it out.
All of this personnel needed feeding. Again we enlisted our trusted volunteers, from all over the Algarve from east to west, collection points were set up and restaurants supplied cooked food, as did supermarkets. We would ring the Bombeiros every morning, get a shopping list, and have it all at Silves for lunchtime. Anita van Huson, set up a catering group and supplied cooked meals.
We also collected toiletries and first aid supplies. Some had been in the same clothes for days, especially the Bombeiros from afar who had come to help, so we also took clean t-shirts and underwear to those fighting the flames.
We launched the animal rescue groups. Wendy Frost and Lucy Pither doing the domestic animals with Jane Kemp rescuing horses and large animals. Our volunteers sometimes ventured into dangerous situations to save animals. We also created another branch of Alerta, managed by Becci Rich and Keziah Gibbons, for people who had been evacuated. We placed them in temporary accommodation offered to help.
We now have little volunteer groups set up for the east and west, who drop everything once a fire starts and organise supplies and collections. We have a team of over 20 volunteers on the Facebook page, reporting on fires from 08.00- 22.00 and beyond if we have an active blaze.
There are 17 fire stations in total. During a fire, we need thousands of euros to supply them with water and energy bars. The uniforms we buy cost around €350 per person, for a jacket, trousers, fireproof balaclava and functional Gore-Tex boots. Alerta has been able to purchase through fundraising events and donations, 110 uniforms and over €2000 of PPE.
We have secured donations of decommissioned uniforms from the UK, breathing apparatus, and infrared cameras. For the last three years, we have given every station a hamper, on Christmas Eve, for the crews working over Christmas.
Every year for 10 nights, we help Silves and Messines Bombeiros with the car parking at Silves medieval festival and take donations. Sadly this has been cancelled this year. Many people also hold fundraising events for us, including Roosters in Messines, which is a massive supporter of Alerta.
I have named only a handful of our volunteers, there are a great deal, and every single one is just as important in the grand scheme of things. Behind the scenes, there is a core group of nine people, who form the committee and plod along with planning and making sure all runs smoothly.
This summer I am doing my stay at home swimathon for the duration of the fire season: I am completing 1 km a day to try to help with the shortfall in funds due to COVID-19. I have hit 10.000 lengths/ 45 km.”
A big thank you to Debbie and all the volunteers, please keep up the excellent work.