It’s over two weeks now that almost 3,000 sq. km (just for comparison purposes: Luxembourg is approximately 2,586 sq. km) were burnt in less than 48 hours in North and Central Portugal. We, like so many others, were surrounded by these fires, in which 44 people died and more than 70 injured, with many more losing their homes, possessions, animals and land.
It’s only now, after two weeks of tidying up in and around the houses, as well as on some of parts of the land, and being reconnected to electricity network and internet, that we slowly start to restore a daily routine of working half days on the farm and half a day writing or working on paid assignments.
The day after, the shock was still too big to let the disaster well and truly sink in, and the adrenaline after a fearful night kept most of us going. There was a lot of coming and going on the dirt road next to our house, at least compared to what we were used to. Everyone seemed to be driving around, checking their land, investigating the damage to electricity and telephone lines, talking to each other, clearing trees off the road, and telling us and each other that they had never seen anything like this before. Even an 90-year-old men, we had met a few days earlier while giving him a lift, was in a terrible state, hurrying back to his land. And when we briefly spoke with him, he told us how he had never seen such fires ever before, and with almost tears in his eyes, related in detail all the damage to his property and of his sons and daughters. While we were trying to make sense of what we had experienced, people around us were already making plans to clean up the mess, and get going again.
And then came the rain. Not much, but during the night it settled down the dust and cleared the air and made all that was burnt (which is almost everything) even more black and intense.
On the second day, while I was trying to post a letter for Peter (a notification of the damage to the trees planted for an EU supported project), I saw most people had their heads down. People here normally make some kind of contact when cautiously passing each other on the road, making sure you don’t bump into each other in the small streets, this time no one seemed to have the energy to connect. Tired and beaten by the magnitude of the events, some looked subdued, while others looked bewildered or confused, all, as if they were trying to make sense of the recent events and trying to find the energy to digest their loss and pick up their daily routine. With most houses and facilities shut off from electricity, running water, television and internet, it was quiet, and most shops and offices were closed.
And like everyone else, I found myself a little lost and disoriented in this small village where nothing seemed to work. Unable to post the letter, connect to the internet, do some shopping, and not sure where to find working facilities. I went back to the farm, afraid of worrying Jim while being away for too long, without being able to contact him.
The rest of the week, the magnitude of the event also slowly sunk in. While working on the farm, and driving around in the area, going out for shopping, tracing an internet connection, we saw how kilometer after kilometer of land, houses and cars were burnt. We saw the panic in the eyes of people when a supermarket suddenly had to close its door because a nearby factory which was still burning, was in danger of exploding. It turned out to be a false alarm, but that didn’t matter at that moment.
These first days were also the days that the stories of others trickled in, each more frightening and sad than the other. Stories of animals who hadn’t survived the fires, or had escaped, got lost or got burnt. Stories of incredible damage to houses, whether remote or at the edge of a village, stores, tools, irrigation systems, numerous cars and motorhomes. Stories of people trying to flee the fires, driving through smoke not knowing where to go and afraid of falling trees, or bumping into someone, or running for their lives, hiding in sheds for hours while gravely being wounded or burnt. And people telling us how they survived in their house, while fighting the fires with water, sand and beating saving as much as possible.
The fires, it was all we talked about. And everyone had their own story. For days, while we were collecting water from the well, cleaning up, picking up burnt fiberglass, and while Peter and Ute were running around to investigate the damage to their property as well as all the properties they look after, trying to contact the insurances to put in claims, get quotes for repairs, chase the electricity company to get reconnected, and cutting down trees which were about to fall and restore the burnt stock of firewood – the fires, your whereabouts during the events, and its consequences was the main subject of conversation.
It was hard to imagine that there were places which hadn’t been hit. That there was a world out there which hadn’t burnt, and where services were functioning without having been disrupted at least for a few days, and stories weren’t only about the fires and its aftermath. And that it would be possible to talk about something else, like colleagues, work issues, family matters or television programmes. Most of the time, shut off from the rest of the world, through poor access to internet and daily news, there was no other news. Nothing seemed to matter more to us.
Until the fifth day, when our dear friends Eric and Ingrid arrived with fresh food, stacks of ice cubes (obviously the best solution for keeping your beers cold when you don’t have electricity to connect your fridge, why hadn’t we thought of it?), cold beers and work clothes to give us a hand. It was just great, finally having a reason to treat ourselves to the local cuisine in a nearby restaurant, to listen to their stories from Amsterdam, share memories of the past, and being able to tell about the events to people who hadn’t experienced it, but could imagine what we had gone through as they had driven through kilometres of devastated land and had feared for us and our safety.
The following day, working on the farm was a cheerful event again. Eric pointed out freshly sprouted green shoots. He drove the little tractor, with Ingrid and me in the trailer, on our way to collect, cut and saw wood, talking and making jokes, giving Jim the chance to finish an assignment. It was them who encouraged us to join them and take a break, in Aveiro, a lovely town on the coast and made sure that we spoiled ourselves and truly enjoyed a few days of rest, knowing what we had gone through, and where we had to go back too.
Of course, now about two weeks after, reconnected to electricity and the internet, we still talk a lot about the events, and are confronted daily by the aftermath. Even though the grass is growing rapidly and nature is showing off its strength to recover, the earth is still undeniably black, and the picture I see in the mirror, after a few hours of work outside, doesn’t lie. But the urge to clean up the mess as quick as possible, and make sense of the events, as well as the constant distress of having to face such fires again has left.
It will be a long time before everything will be back to normal again. For now though, the situation is normal enough for us to stay as we had planned for the coming months, trying to figure out what we want do and where we want to be. Something we were wondering about before the fire, something we will be wondering about for a few more months, while we enjoy our stay here on the farm.