Monday morning, 2.30
I am sitting in a safe place, at least we hope, as I write this blog. We’re somewhere in the centre of Seixo da Beira: me, Jim, Peter and Ute. Waiting for the fires to stop. Fire is still coming from all sides, and we don’t know when it will stop. The smoke is heavy and dangerous, and the strong, dry wind keeps on blowing. We try to keep low, out of floating ashes, and talk as little as possible.
It’s going to be a long night. A night in which we worry about the donkey we left in another village before we had to we run from there. A night in which we wonder about the neighbour, who doesn’t have a car and should have joined us to leave the area, but never came. A night in which Peter and Ute might lose almost everything they have, everything they have grown and developed the last three decades. A night during which we will hardly sleep, and will probably have to move around to remain safe.
We don’t know what is happening. With no internet or phone signal we have no idea what is happening around us. From where we are, and what we have seen during the day, it seems as if the of whole Portugal is burning, and as if we are caught in the middle of it. It must feel the same for everyone in the villages around us. Everyone is caught in this fire, either losing their house, land, animals or knowing someone who has lost or is losing something. And in all this turmoil, where people try to save what they have, and are running around to make sure everyone is in a safe place, people also find the time to talk to each other, inform each other and make sure everyone has water to drink. Because we all realise that all that counts now is our lives and the lives of others.
To relieve the stress, we open a bottle of wine, and drink a beer. Independent from each other, both Jim and I had quickly grabbed some junk food and booze before we left the farm, knowing it would be a welcome distraction, and help us relax a little once we found a safe place. Besides our passports, laptops and a few clothes, it’s all we put in our van. Luckily, all the rest can be replaced and nothing seems of any value at this moment.
So here we sit, the four of us, homeless at least for this one night, in the entrance of an abandoned building. And we do manage to relax and share stories. Even Anata, Peter and Ute’s normally very shy dog, quietly lays down in the midst of us, and lets us all cuddle him. It’s almost a cozy moment of being together, if it weren’t for the fear of the fires, the heavy smoke and the exploding trees and gas bottles around us, constantly reminding us of why we’re sitting in this dirty old doorway.
How it all started
For weeks, the people in the region have been waiting for rain. It’s been too hot and dry for far too long. There hasn’t been a single drop of water since May.
Almost every week, the weather forecast predicts rain for next week. And every week, we swallow our disappointment that no rain has fallen and the fact that the official critical fire danger period, which forbids certain types of work on the farm (anything that could cause a fire or even a spark) is extended for another few weeks. And day after day people were watering their crops and trees, if there was still water left in their wells, to try to help them survive this terrible drought.
Finally, we were told, relief was on its way. Hurricane Ophelia was on her way from Monday onwards with the thunderstorms and heavy rain that would free the region from the never ending drought. So after cleaning wells, cutting trees, and doing all kinds of things on the farm, the last couple of weeks, Peter decided to take it easy for the day, and take time to plan for the rainy days to come. Ute was off to sell some of her handmade soaps at a market, and Jim and I took the opportunity to go for a long walk and explore the area.
We saw smoke coming from the Serra da Estrella mountains, but the fire was still very far and the fire services were fighting it, with planes and helicopters.
Feeling reassured, our plan was to find out how far away the farm was by foot from a pub, a restaurant, or a place to get a beer. As we don’t want to drive and drink, we thought it would be a useful way of spending a leisurely day.
So we took some water and set out for a walk, and tried out the different places in and around the centre of Seixo da Beira, and walked back to find out how long that would take us.
It was a pleasant day, a trip I was going to blog about, probably coming to the conclusion that even while the farm where we stay is relatively far from a place to eat and drink, it was doable to go for lunch and a drink by foot, and walk back.
Monday morning, 3.30 am, a short intermezzo
Just had to move, and go more into the centre of the village. A huge fire mass was slowly approaching us. Even though there were hardly any trees around us, we didn’t feel safe anymore and decided to move between the houses. Hoping that would be a safer place to wait for morning.
And now, at half past three in the morning, we are surrounded by houses where people seem to sleep. We can hear others in the distance and dogs are barking, but the families seem to be taking this opportunity to get at least some sleep. We might need to go to our cars and do the same.
While walking back to the farm, from our pub crawl, we saw that the smoke had gotten worse, compared to what we saw in the morning. So Jim and I went to a place on the farm where we could inspect the growing number of fires. Worried for the people affected and the land, we were also happy to see they were far away, out of our reach, especially since more than four hundred firemen, supported by the planes were still working hard. So after a thorough inspection with binoculars, and a check on the app which gives an overview of all fires in Portugal, we went to our house to work for a few hours.
At around half past five, Jim went for a run. Only twenty minutes later, when I was ready to do the same, the smoke was so thick and quickly approaching it didn’t feel right to leave, and I decided to stay. It all felt still pretty safe, with the fires far, but the smoke and ashes looked alarming. When Jim came back, Ute and Peter slowly started to prepare the land, in case the fire would come nearer. But it all still seemed pretty far off.
It was after dinner, around eight at night, when the fires seemed to approach the nearest tarred road that we started to worry. For us the wind was blowing the right direction, away from us, and for a long time we thought that with the wind and the fire brigades controlling it, the fire would never cross the road. And while Peter, Ute and Jim were preparing to spray water, I was checking the course of the fires together with our neighbour Eddie. Still optimistic, I exchanged messages with a friend in Italy, which also has its share of wildfires, and she advised us to run. It was an exchange of messages I instantly regretted when electricity went off and when we lost internet and telephone signals. I felt sure I had only got her worried. It was also the moment I started to worry, and was happy I had packed some bags and made sure we were ready to leave.
At 22.30, Eddie and I ran back to our respective houses. The wind had changed direction and fires were crossing the road. Peter, Ute and Jim were already spraying water with high pressure hoses, trying to save some land and the houses. And then suddenly the fire was there, two hundred meters away. And we just had to go. At top of the road, Peter and Ute decided to go back to take the donkey. They were gone for so long, that we were getting very worried about them, and it was a relief to see them in the village where we were already busy spraying water on the ground around the church. A church where most villagers had gathered to be together and be safe. But the fires soon came there too, to the little village of Vale Torto, and with our cars outside, we decided to leave and go further. And that’s were we are now as I write this blog, between moments of sleep.
I feel safe here. People know we are here and some of the younger villagers are constantly driving around to check everything is still safe.
The day after
The morning is almost surreal. The Cockerell and chickens wake us as if it’s a normal day. We see people getting on the bus, dressed to go to work. And people come out of their houses, get in their cars and drive away. And we decide to do the same and try and find a way back to the farm.
Of course, roads are blocked with fallen trees and electricity poles about to fall, and everywhere we look the earth is burned. Even so we manage to get close enough and go farther by foot. There is relief when we see that the houses are OK. And even more relief when we hear Eddie’s voice, brave Eddie who stayed and made sure that the fires didn’t reach Peter and Ute’s houses. And there was more relief when we finally found the donkey, safe in the corale of the neighboring village. But then came the hurt, most of the land is burnt, lots of trees are dead or will die, it will take weeks to cut it all down, and years for it all to recover. Probably in less than an hour, the years of hard work of land management has been destroyed. The land looks devastated, and the owners are worn out.
And we, we are wondering whether we are ready to face this risk again, because it will come again, probably not soon, but it will, in ten or fifteen years.