World

Blame game in Portugal over wildfire that killed 64 people

Portugal's prime minister lost his patience with journalists' questions Wednesday as accusations flew about who or which agency might be to blame for the deaths of 64 people in a raging forest fire.

Prime Minister Antonio Costa pledged to clarify the "contradictory information" as soon as possible amid finger-pointing between different authorities involved in fighting the deadly blaze. He walked away from reporters before returning and saying "nobody is more eager than I am to find out" what happened.

The catastrophe has provided political ammunition to opposition parties, with some calling for the resignation of Interior Minister Constanca Urbano de Sousa. Testifying before a parliamentary committee Wednesday, Urbano de Sousa almost broke down in tears as she described the fire as "the most difficult moment of my life."

She refused to quit, saying her duty is to make sure it doesn't happen again.

Criticism of how the fire was handled has focused mainly on the country's emergency telecommunications network, known by its acronym SIRESP.

Firefighters say the system didn't work properly during the five days they fought the wildfire that started in central Portugal on June 17, when the deaths occurred. The Civil Protection Agency, which operates the firefighting service, said in a report that flaws in the radio system prevented the smooth flow of information between the command post and firefighters in the field.

The company that runs SIRESP insisted in a separate report that the system "met the challenge," handling 1.1 million calls over the five days. However, it acknowledged the network was occasionally overloaded, saying that 8.3 percent of the emergency calls got a busy signal on the night that the blaze swept across a road and killed so many people fleeing in their cars.

An Interior Ministry report, meanwhile, blamed the Civil Protection Agency for not deploying extra mobile satellite receivers to handle the exceptional load of calls. There were more than 1,000 firefighters, plus police and medical staff at the fire site, all of them using SIRESP.

Costa himself has come under scrutiny for his actions in 2006, when he was the interior minister in charge of police and firefighters. The Jornal de Noticias reported that Portugal's Audit Court expressed misgivings at the time that the contract awarded to the company running SIRESP hadn't gone to a public tender. Costa didn't address that report.

The prime minister says he won't act until he gets all the information he needs. The government says it has already received five reports into the catastrophe and is awaiting two others.

In an open letter on social media Wednesday, 12 academic experts urged the European Commission to support more research into fires in forests and buildings, including their causes and consequences.