After a tragedy, how can a community heal?

In 2017, 66 people died in Portugal's largest wildfire. A year later, the physical wounds have healed, but the mental scars remain. 

Catia Bruno
Cátia Bruno NewsMavens, Portugal
After a tragedy, how can a community heal? - NewsMavens
Fire in Pedrógão, Portugal, Wikimedia Commons

Why this story matters:

It was a tragedy like no one had ever seen before.

On the June 17, 2017 a wild fire in in Pedrógão, Portugal, destroyed houses, agricultural fields, animals and -- most tragically -- killed 66 people and injured 254. 

Most of the victims died on a road, trapped inside their own cars while trying to escape the flames.

After the incident, multiple inquiries uncovered deep problems within the leadership of both the Civil Defense and Firefighter units which were coordinating the response to the fire. So far, 10 people are formally under judicial investigation.

A year after the tragedy, most of the houses have been rebuilt and insurance companies have paid their claims. But those who lived through the fire cannot forget the experience, as they suffer anxiety, depression and PTSD. Mental health experts try to do their best, but teams are small and the situation is unprecedented. How can you accept when the unthinkable happens? How do you heal a community's suffering mental health issues?

Details from the story:

  • Authorities had no previous experience in providing mental health treatment to a whole community in Portugal. In the previous disaster this large -- a bridge collapse -- 59 people died, but the whole community did not witness up close death and destruction as in Pedrógão.
  • Mental health workers used the so-called Avilés model, which focuses on community-based responses.
  • In rural areas such as this one, psychological treatment is still viewed by many with suspicion, making treatment harder. "Some people went to our meetings with sunglasses on, and did not open their mouths. By the second meeting, they would have an emotional collapse," says Nádia Piazza, from the local Fire Victims Association. "Each meeting was like an AA meeting, with someone sharing their story." 
  • Children have shown more resilience than adults. In Pedrógão, a study found only 8% show PTSD symptoms.
  • The one-year mark may bring up symptoms that were buried inside some of the victims. It is key that mental health physicians but also friends and neighbors remain vigilant. 
inbox_large_illu Created with Sketch.
Tired of the news media’s prevailing male perspective? We are too.

Get our newsletters composed exclusively by female journalists from all over Europe.


Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

The information and views set out on this website are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.

NewsMavens is a media start-up within Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest liberal broadsheet published by Agora S.A. NewsMavens is currently financed by Gazeta Wyborcza and Google DNI Fund.
Is something happening in your country that Newsmavens should cover?
Zuzanna Ziomecka
Zuzanna Ziomecka EDITOR IN CHIEF
Lea Berriault-Jauvin
Lea Berriault Managing Editor
Jessica Sirotin
Jessica Sirotin EDITOR
Ada Petriczko
Ada Petriczko EDITOR
Gazeta Wyborcza, Agora SA Czerska 8/10 00-732, Warsaw Poland
The e-mail addresses provided above are not intended for recruitment purposes. Messages concerning recruitment will be deleted immediately. Your personal data provided as part of your correspondence with Zuzanna,Lea, Jessica and Ada will be processed for the purpose of resolving the issue you contacted us about. The data provided in your email is controlled by Agora S.A. with its registered office in Warsaw Czerska 8/10 Street (00-732). You can find more information about the processing and protection of your personal data at