Where to begin?
Where to end?
Forest fires in Portugal are a huge subject. Very few of them are accidental. Yet even while the causes are deliberate and fairly simple, what turns fire into firestorm and fueled 2017’s events, allowing them to become so devastating, is more complex.
But that’s for another post. This one is devoted to a very personal experience of them.
It’s not often I write about things like this here. It’s not so much what this site is about. But if it contributes to raising awareness of what thousands so close to home have been through against a background of media silence, if it becomes part of a movement to bring an end to this phase in Portugal’s history, if it offers some help to the many people who have lost everything they owned and been shaken to the core by these fires, then it will have achieved its purpose.
I am the God of Hell Fire and I bring you
I’ll take you to burn.
I’ll take you to learn.
I’ll see you burn …
You fought hard and you saved and earned
But all of it’s going to burn.
And your mind, your tiny mind
You know you’ve really been so blind.
Now’s your time, burn your mind.
You’re falling far too far behind.
To destroy all you’ve done.
To end all you’ve become.
I’ll feel you burn …
Fire! The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. 1968
On the weekend of October 14-15 2017, the tail of hurricane Ophelia whipped up the smouldering embers of the previous weekend’s fires and, together with new fires set that weekend, burned a vast area of Central and Northern Portugal and on into Galicia in Northern Spain. Government officials had decreed the fire season over and many of the country’s fire-fighting resources had been stood down, despite conditions which continued to warrant care and vigilance after one of the driest years on record. But whether they had or whether they hadn’t, resources would still have been stretched impossibly thin. It’s very hard to paint a picture in words which communicates the magnitude of what took place.
Global media has barely touched on it. The fact that smoke from the fires turned the sun orange all over Northern Europe as far north as Scotland and Scandinavia might give some indication of the scale of the event, but that’s pretty much all that made the headlines. Perhaps the June firestorm in Pedrógão Grande had been enough and now fires in Portugal were old news. Well … they are old news. This has been going on too long.
The drama began for us the previous weekend.
Fires set further into the mountains near Fajão (at around 23:20 on a Friday night, continuing a pattern seen all season) had spread in the tinder-dry conditions. During the night of October 7-8, they broached the rim of the ridges surrounding these valleys and propagated around the ridge line from Monte Frio in the east to Casa da Guarda in the west.
As dawn broke after a long night of fire-watching, the fires were spreading steadily towards us along a ridge west of the village of Sardal. I was fortunate in having an Australian family staying with me with a lot of experience with bushfires. It was a good education.
Finally, the Canadair fire-fighting aircraft – so often decisive in bringing fires under control, but run by a private company under contract – showed up. The fires were controlled.
The junta and bombeiros set up regular patrols along the ridges watching for restarts. Several of us in the foreign community took part. By the end of the week we were all breathing more easily again.
By Saturday, we were preparing for the rain which was forecast to come in with the hurricane.
The hot southerly winds reignited fires at two points on the ridge line. No aircraft were available. Only one team of bombeiros made it to Casa da Guarda to help the junta and local people. As Sunday morning advanced, the situation became increasingly difficult. Driven by the wind, the fires jumped the firebreaks and moved into the valleys.
Normally a forest fire will move fast uphill and slowly downhill. Not so this day. My resident Aussies confessed to never having seen the like. Again, there’s a particular reason for that, but it’s for the post on causes and complexities to come.
As the afternoon wore on, the fires moved to completely encircle these valleys. By 18:00 there was no escape. We were cut off. And at the mouth of the valleys to the north, the fires were moving back into the valleys against the wind.
On the quinta I wet down as large an area as I dared while still leaving enough water to set sprinklers over the yurt and geodome should we have to evacuate. All afternoon, with our clear window of sky to the south, it had seemed possible the fires would pass to the east and west of us and miss us. This was starting to look less likely.
Day turned to night. Still the sky directly to the south of us where the wind was coming from remained clear. But the fire front coming down from the eastern rim was approaching, as was the fire moving south from the valley mouth.
The night wore on. We took turns on watch. The cats were shut into the wee house so we could get them into baskets easily. Evacuation seemed inevitable. It was just a matter of time.
With hindsight, there was a lot more I could have done during this time to protect the buildings and structures which burned, but that’s hindsight of course.
By 1:00am it was looking like time to go. Two of us took the car along the track to see if there was any possibility of driving out. The fire had jumped the road and the rubbish tip at the end of the track was alight. Possibly we could have driven through the flames, but it didn’t seem sensible when we could simply walk down to the village. We drove back again and I left the car further along the track in a small gully. I didn’t want to leave it by the wee house with half a tank of fuel in it.
2:00am. We put the cats into baskets, the dog on the lead and our packs on our backs and walked down to the village. The hens and geese would have to fend for themselves.
Friends greeted us and expressed relief we were OK. People were gathered in the Liga de Melhoramentos, some trying to sleep. We left the cats and bags there and went to see who else was around and what was happening. The fires were getting very close now.
Suddenly it was upon us.
From three directions simultaneously.
The trees immediately behind the Liga were on fire. We evacuated everyone to the church. Chunks of burning vegetation were raining down on us. People were attaching hoses to a pipe round the back of the church in a frantic scramble to get water onto the cars in the car park opposite. Inside the church, people were taking down the heavy red velvet curtains and soaking them to lay on the floor around doors. From inside, you could hear the roar of the fire wind rushing round the building.
Houses in the village were burning. There weren’t enough of us to be everywhere at once.
The drama of a village completely surrounded and cut off by wildfires without a fireman to defend it would ordinarily have been a spectacularly newsworthy event, but there were hundreds of such villages. In these valleys alone, there were eleven. It would have been twelve, except for the fire crew in Luadas.
Not that they could do much more than the rest of us. At a certain point, a thing becomes so immense, so enormous, so monstrous, so chaotic, so totally beyond the power of anybody to make any kind of impact on it at all, that it becomes pointless, futile, to attempt to even resist it.
So you stop.
You stop running around streets looking for taps to put a hose on. You let the fire do what it has to do. And in that stopping, in that allowing, there is an immense and calm acceptance even while the flames are still furiously burning all around.
Your field of vision expands.
You let it in. You open up to the fire.
It’s 3 o’clock in the morning. The children and animals are safe in the village church. (When you put them in there you asked the almighty whatever if it was your day to die. It wasn’t. So you’re not in the least afraid. Inside the church is safe, there is no doubt, but it wasn’t the place to be.)
Someone goes down to the bar and comes back with a few beers. (Nobody even questions how it is the bar is dispensing beers at 3am. Normal rules do not apply.) There’s a few people gathered, all having come to much the same conclusion about the futility of further resistance. You sit on a wall amidst the blazing buildings, choking smoke and burning brush, crack open a beer and crack jokes about Dante’s Inferno and apocalyptic horsemen.
At some point you grab another beer and wander off with a close friend to sit in someone’s orchard and, looking up the hill, watch the building you’ve spent years renovating (and had almost finished) burn. No emotion. Just a kind of resignation. It’s just history. It’s just stuff. Let it go. Who needs a history anyway? All the stories you tell yourself about who ‘I’ am and what ‘I’ can and can’t do; the false construct; the fabricated edifice of ‘self’ … who even needs a self? Let it burn.
Asking am I still to be here? In this place? On that land? A solid sense of yes.
So it boils down to work to be done again. But not so very significant next to the fact of being alive.
Your friend is trying to convince you (or maybe himself) it’s your neighbour’s house that’s burning, not yours. It’s a momentarily appealing idea from a purely selfish perspective, but you know fine, from the position of the doors and windows where the fire is blazing out, that it’s yours. Boom! There goes the gas bottle you put downstairs, surrounded by stone walls, where you thought it would be safe.
It all becomes surreal.
By 5:30am you’re exhausted, eyes stinging with the smoke. You’ve been in a state of high alert for 15 hours. Your friend has got a bee in his bonnet about going home. The fires are pretty exhausted as well and you’re watching the road to Luadas because the fire crew are coming down. That must mean the road is passable.
You tiptoe into the church so as not to wake the sleeping people, take your bag of essentials and the cats in their baskets, prise the dog’s lead from the fist of a sleeping child while the dog climbs carefully over him, and jump in your friend’s car.
The pair of you take off on an Adventure. You’re both giggling with the craziness of it. Driving fast, not daring to slow down because it feels like if you slow down or stop, you’ll burn. Yet not so fast at the same time because you’ve no idea what’s on the road around the next bend. You’re dodging crazy blazing torches of telegraph poles suspended in mid air over the road, fallen branches, pockets of fire still alight everywhere all the way up the ridge and the air is so thick with smoke it’s hard to see. The valley of Teixugueira, where the fires roared through during the afternoon and early evening taking every home there with them, is a black smoking hole still spitting fire. A dragon’s den. Mordor. Near the top, looming out of the smoke, there’s a large tree fallen above the road. The trunk is neatly cut. The fire crew must have cleared it to get down. Yeay for the fire crew!
You reach the top, elated. It’s Armageddon and you’re both alive.
Your friend’s house in the village and those of all his neighbours are untouched. A bizarre normality. There’s a tiny bit of phone signal, but it’s not possible to call. Only text. There’s no internet. No electricity. You send a message to your daughters in the UK to tell them you’re OK. You collapse into your friend’s impossibly enormous and comfy bed and sleep.
Not for long.
As the light returned, the desire to go back to the quinta got stronger and stronger and more sleep was impossible. The quinta is directly downhill from the house where I was staying, but I could see nothing for the smoke. I waited while my friend still slept, texted daughters on the last of the phone battery, went from bed to window to bed to window. I considered walking down the hill but the woods were still smouldering.
Nothing to do. Let it be.
Later we headed into Luadas and got a lift to the quinta with a man with a 4×4 and land neighbouring mine. There was no telling what state the track would be in.
Nor the quinta.
But that’s for the next post. This one is quite long enough already.