18 000 kms away, I’m woken up by a call from my sister to tell me a friend in Portugal says I should check on my house because it’s in the path of huge fires. It’s 10.30am on Sunday 18th June. I open my laptop and while downloading my emails I check the news: the forest around little Pedrogão Grande is ablaze and already 6 people have lost their lives. There are pictures of the N236 – which I immediately recognise, it’s so familiar – with discarded, burnt out cars. We’ve had fire scares before, but this time it looks very serious.
My mails download and there it is, a few lines from our tenant Eric, sent five hours earlier, 10pm Portuguese time.
“We are devastated. Just made it out of Póvoa encircled by huge fires, the plot was burning and the annexe. We tried to fight it with a hose but was impossible, had to run with just our clothes. We couldn’t save anything. The lights went out and there was no way to see to pack. It was hell. We are so sorry, so much effort in the house, I have no words to describe our sorrow…”
I send him a short message back, hoping that he and Adriana, Eric’s partner, are ok, and I’m sorry too.
And then I hear nothing more for 12 hours, because of the internet and mobile blackout.
The One came home from work and we spent the rest of the day on the net, on facebook and the news, tracking down neighbours and friends, and trying to track the course of the fire. It seemed like my village and the disaster at Pedrogão had happened almost at the same time, so to explain it, I made a rough map.
While we in Sydney fretted for bricks and mortar, my friend Isabel in Portugal reminded me that it’s people who are lost, not houses. We knew our tenants were ok, and that was a relief, but what of the other neighbours? My friend Emma had spent the night locating local friends and other expats scattered throughout the area and evacuating dogs from shelters and finding them temporary homes. There was an intense, urgent and grim atmosphere.
We waited, feeling useless. We argued. We sent more emails and texts and messages. Eventually we had dinner and went to bed. And then ‘bing!’ there was another email and then Eric and I talked on the phone. The house was miraculously saved.
So here’s a good news story, of the bravery and solidarity of a little village, and a fight against the worst forest fires ever recorded in Portugal.
The fire first approached the village from the east, roughly the direction of Pedrogão Grande. Adriana saw a huge flame rise from a cloud of smoke from beyond a nearby ridge. She watched in awe as it towered high and surged forward like a wave above her, and above the whole house. She ran inside and and closed the windows and shutters. The fire descended so rapidly that by the time Eric arrived at the house from the garage 30 metres away, the grass at the house was already on fire. Eric and Adriana knew they had to go – they were the most exposed, facing the bush and the fire. The olive grove on the eastern side was ablaze and now the front lawn on the south-west was also alight, while the main fire headed north, uphill to the ruin behind my house. Eric put the hose on the burning front lawn but it was futile, with fire raging behind the house and a hurricane of hot air all around: the flames were taller than the house itself.
The other neighbours were watching from a safer position across the valley of the village; they had time to fill water tanks and to consider leaving or staying to fight. For a moment Eric thought he might stay & fight too, thinking of the water tank not far away – but now from the front lawn he could see to the north, the fire past the neighbour’s house and cutting off their closest exit. And also now to the south, on the main road out, he watched as the beautiful oaks on the curve of the road were engulfed in flames. With fire all around, just a flimsy hose, the annexe now on fire, Eric thought the main house would be on fire any minute and the place would be a deadly trap.
The electricity was out and although it was only 8pm it was dark because of the heavy smoke everywhere. They wanted to collect documents, clothes, computers, bikes – anything – but couldn’t see and fled to the car with just the clothes they had on. Eric told my next door neighbour Sesinando it was time to go. A few of Sesinando’s large family were gathered around the largo, some panicking, some arguing about what to do. Eric collected Sesinando’s wife and daughter while Sesinando went for his elderly father, slow on his feet and reluctant to leave, the fire at his back door.
Now in the car they were faced with the main road on the south end of the village. The fire had circled around and both sides of the road were in flames. They went up through the middle of the village, on a steep cobbled road in an oasis of green.
At the top, one neighbour was freaking out. Her daughter and baby had already left, she didn’t know what to do next. Eric told her the house was also certainly lost and they were about to be cut off. At that stage they had no idea of the magnitude of the fire. They didn’t know about Pedrogão – they had no electricity, no tv, not even water in the tap now. At that moment Eric thought they might be headed for Spain where his parents were. If they had, they would’ve almost certainly been trapped on the deadly Castanheira – Figueiró road.
As he looked across from the neighbour’s door and saw huge flames coming out of my annexe, the fruit trees on the front lawn and the garden of my neighbour below ablaze, he called to Adriana still in the car. But she said she couldn’t watch, such was the sorrow to see it all go up in flames.
They got out of the village and onto the N347, passing flames 10 metres high on either side of the road. Once safe up on the road (between Castanheira and Penela) Eric sent the passengers to walk down to Castanheira, only a km or so away, calls his dad, and sends me an email.
Minutes passed as they considered what to do. Do they head for Spain, it didn’t feel right, do they go back to the village, how dangerous is it? They worried and vacillated. Together they decided just to get a bit closer to see what was happening when they saw my old neighbour and friend Felipe. He has just driven from Pedrogão using the backroads, through hamlets like Moita which would be destroyed later in the night. He had come to evacuate Sesinando (his dad) and his grandfather.
Felipe insisted they had to try to get back to the village. He had been talking to his dad on the mobile and they were both still ok in the village; this was very reassuring and emboldened them not to give up.
They all waited while the flames seemed to subside at that spot, having consumed all the dry material in its path. Felipe suggests they try walking to the village as the cars might be too dangerous. For a few minutes they leave Adriana and Felipe’s girlfriend with the cars, ready to drive away if the fire turned back on them. But they changed their minds and went back again. Driving was hell, they could only see a couple of metres of white lines ahead through the dense smoke. Eric lost Felipe ahead in the smoke. The heat burned their faces through the closed windows. Fiery sparks showered down on them, Eric using the windscreen wipers as if it were rain. In those brief minutes, driving only a few hundred meters, no one came the other way, thank god. Stopping would have been fatal, as it was for so many others that day. They had no idea at the time how very dangerous this last half hour had been.
The fire and smoke cleared as they approached the turn off to the village. They drove down to the village entrance, passing another neighbour & his wife with their car packed ready to go. She had just taken the video below (the very bright light at the end is probably my annexe). As they carefully descended the cobbled slope, Eric was amazed to see everything was the same as before. The front grass almost consumed, the whole scene lit by the flames of the annexe and large ruin above – but no flames on the house. The fire was raging uphill, behind my neighbour’s and all the way up the hill.
They stopped the car at the largo da fonte: the lowest part of the village, with a large reservoir. Simon (The One)’s old car is there, Eric expecting it to have burned but it’s ok. He throws a bucket of water over it and his own car (both are loved 1980’s Mercedes Benz: Simon gave his car to Eric when he left).
There was no one around now. Sesinando and Felipe must have been working on the fire behind their house. At our house, the front grass was burned out and only the olive trees and the annexe were on fire, plus a few patches of grass, a water pump & pipe, and pieces of wood here and there. They felt encouraged that the house was ok and the massive 10 metre flames had moved on. Most of the undergrowth was burnt away leaving just tree trunks to burn. On the kitchen side and front of the house the fire had come to the very doorstep, but had nothing left to burn. They took a hose from the untouched lower ruin of the house and to their surprise there was water from the tap. They started on the annexe and the neighbour’s olive trees next to it. But it was impossible! They’d put it out and it’d reignite.
After 30 minutes, Felipe showed up and said that the fire was heading towards the horta velha (communal vegetable garden). It’s situated on a dirt track that circles the northern rim of the village linking the upper village and lower part, where I am. If it crosses that dirt road it would descend down the valley, destroy the gardens and engulfing the village. Help was needed. So Eric left Adriana on her own with the hose to protect the back of the house and contain the remaining fire on the annexe.
Eric met Aurindo (a neighbour whose house is on the ring road) down at the fonte where he had loaded a 1000l water tank onto his truck and was filling it with the irrigation petrol pump from the fonte. They headed up the main road, where the flames had died down since their last exit. However at the top entrance to the village it was very scary. Lionel and his son Alipio (upper village neighbours) were fighting a losing battle, with the blazing fire on the outer rim starting to cross the road to the village side. So they used the first tank there, on the steep road it was easy keeping the truck at a higher level so they could siphon out the water through a hose. Shortly Felipe arrived. He’d been checking on the whole village on his quad bike. He’d come to report that the ring road fire was headed towards Aurindo’s house. They went to refill the tank.
At the horta velha, Felipe and his father Sesinando were with tree branches, smacking the flames when it crossed over the road. It was little use against huge flames, but they were lucky, the wind had mysteriously calmed, so everything burned quietly, vertically. That same luck had saved my house – before the flames had been blowing hard against them. The very first huge flames that Adriana had seen were like a tornado, while now it calmed and without the spur of the wind it took its natural course, uphill and away from them. Even so, the narrow ring road presented frightening conditions, with less room to manoeuvre and the fire threatening to cross the road every second.
Aurindo’s wife Lucia and their daughter Ana had been guarding the house with barrels and buckets of water at the ready. But it wasn’t enough. The men brought up the water tank but gravity was no longer on their side this time. Eric then suggests another plan, to fill up and bring the pump from the fonte with them, which worked fine, like a small fire engine. All this while the fire continues to burn around them.
Meanwhile Lionel had gone to put out a fire in a shed near his own house, but he eventually joined them again at the ring road. Lionel and Aurindo, despite their age-old feud, talked and collaborated. He reported that the fire at the top of the village was heading down their way, to the other side of Aurindo’s house.
They got another water tank onto Lionel’s truck, but it was difficult with only one pump. Filling up at the fonte, the pump wore out and broke, again and again, with pieces flying off into the darkness and lost. They returned to Aurindo to find him in tears, he having thought they’d left him alone to fight the flames only a few metres from his house.
They had two very nasty fronts now, and it was about 2am. Aurindo was saying he did not give a damn about olives or trees anymore, just save the house, all his life’s work. Eric’s back was broken, they’d had no food, only driven by adrenalin. Sesinando could barely stand. Eric looked down the hill and saw mostly darkness and smoke, which meant at least that Adriana was managing and there were no big flames.
When Aurindo’s son suddenly arrived at 3am, Eric thought it was like in a film where help arrives at the very last moment. He’d driven up from Lisbon via a major detour to the north because the roads were all closed. But he was fresh and grabbed the hose and fought the flames on the eastern front while the others tackled the west. At that moment they also found a critical part of the pump that had been lost hours before.
Finally it seemed that the worst was over. There were small fires everywhere, lonely trees in flames in all directions, like a starry sky, but it didn’t seem threatening compared to the hell of before. Eric went back home, where Adriana had been all on her own. Luckily there had been water from the tap all night. Adriana had saved the house, and their vegetable garden.
The annexe had been difficult to control. Inside there had been furniture, plastics, paint, building materials and car parts which burned along with the roof timbers all night. It was contained by the walls so Adriana was less worried than she was by the fire on the upper village. She had a pretty good view of the fire approaching Aurindo’s, she saw the big flames and people around. She watched the fire develope and was afraid it would continue down the slope and towards the front of our house. She had expected Aurindo’s house to be lost, judging from the big trees besides it in flames.
Dawn came with a few minutes of rest. Eric imagined it the saddest dawn in his life, anticipating all the devastation to be unveiled, but there was only a big cloud of smoke. They tried to go to bed, unable to sleep, still in shock.
As he wrote this to me, they were still in shock, and the news started to filter in about what had happened between Pedrogão and Póvoa.
“We realised how really lucky we were because we turned back to the village instead of trying to flee any further – we would have been trapped along the 236, the death road. We were lucky because the wind spared us, because the house resisted against all odds, because the centre of Póvoa was miraculously spared, because we happened to have a water reservoir at hand. Because there is some life left around here while the surrounding areas are obliterated. Serrada and Fontão Fundeiro were also spared, but all the forest around is gone. The fire approached Poesia, a magical place certainly, and the magic worked, the fire stopped near the village, now abandoned. Everything from there to Póvoa and Campelo is gone. What is apparent is that eucalyptus are deadly. They all burned along with the pines. But the cork, the oaks and other trees survived. The villages were spared because there are no eucalyptus among the houses.
“Now we have to digest this. It’s harder now that the fear and adrenaline are gone, and you reflect about how close we were to a horrible death. There is really no heroism to speak of, you just do it on automatic mode without thinking, without making decisions. The others had their livelihoods and property to fight for, with desperation and fear. If I did anything beyond was was expected, maybe I was just cornered into it, I thought I could do it with them out of pure solidarity. No heroes, just lucky to save our arses.”