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Who should cover the cost of fires?

I had a holiday in beautiful Madeira this year and, although I count myself lucky to have done so, one of the sadder things to come from the trip was seeing the lasting damage that fires can cause. With fire also devastating parts of Portugal and southern France this summer, I think it’s important we look at the cost – and who pays.

News outlets are quick to jump on these incidents, generally focusing on the impact on tourists and the loss of life. But the consequences last much longer than the fires themselves, so we need to ensure that the culprits behind these tragedies are caught and that the areas are rebuilt.

Assessing the damage

The fires in Madeira in 2016 killed three people, destroyed thousands of homes and caused damages that totalled around €157 million. Even though these fires were particularly destructive, they're not a one-off, as Europe faces high costs from fires every year. Annual land and property losses average €200 million. 

As well as causing destruction, death and injury, the fires take vast amounts of manpower to put out. Earlier this summer, more than 2,200 firefighters were battling the blaze in Portugal. Then there’s the immediate impact as localities shut down. At least 10,000 people were evacuated from stricken areas of France last month, causing huge disruption to the tourist industry during its annual peak.

Paying the price

Rebuilding after such events is no mean feat. Insurance claims take time; clearing rubble and repairing the damage caused across huge swathes of land – 4,000 hectares in the case of the French fires – even more so. Travellers and residents become wary and normality doesn't return quickly.

The burden of paying for this falls heavily and widely. Governments and international bodies frequently fund relief efforts, with various local and national agencies responsible for rebuilding. Insurance companies, businesses and individuals also carry heavy burdens. But what of the people who thoughtlessly cause such devastation?

Taking responsibility

While suspects are already under investigation for the fire on the Riviera, justice can take time. The culprit behind the 2016 Madeira incidents has only just been convicted. What’s more, I’m not convinced that the punishment fits the severity of a crime that involved murder and criminal damage on a vast scale.

14 years in prison, and the 15 facing the guilty party in France, is not enough. In Portugal, a petition to increase the sentence for arson to 25 years is gaining traction, and I can understand why – but it’s not just about retribution. Ensuring individuals and companies have sufficient opportunity to reclaim the debts created by these crimes seems only fair. Criminals must face justice, but they must also pay for their crime.

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