This is just my story. Two weeks ago we had the second once in a life time fire, to occur here this year. The fire ravaged an area 6,000 hectares, (a fifth of the size of the fires in California) from Fajao, to Sardal, a neighbouring village. It started on that Friday night and was over by the following Monday. Many of us foreigners, fed up of not being able to do anything went to assist in any way we could. Fortunately, during this fire, there was very little wind, and even though there had been a drought for months, the fire in our area was controllable. The fire fighters were able to stop the fire at fire breaks, and it was controlled.
Because of the location of the fire, the forest, on the sides of the mountains, it was almost impossible to access large areas of it. Other than the size of the area effected, and the access issues, there were real logistical problems because of lack of communication, not just for the foreigners, but even the Freguesia (village council) workers who were all trying to fight the fires as well. There’s little phone reception for whole sections of mountainside, and many of us are on pay as you go tariffs and ran out of credit. Only the bombeiro’s (the official fire fighters) had radio or CB type comms.
Access to water, was another huge issue, as there was hardly anywhere for the bombeiro firefighters to replenish supply, it became necessary for them to be supplied by locals carrying water in 1000 litre tanks on the back of 4wd pick ups to get water to the fire on the ground, but it was in this instance the water bombing planes that made the difference. Without them the fire would have done catastrophically more damage.
Saturday night was the worst night for that particular fire, as many of us watched helplessly as the fire poured down the mountain, and headed in our direction. Given the speed fire can move at, many people evacuated, we chose to stay. From what I could observe, it is, really only the foreigners who live in the forest, that are and were most at risk, and that’s most of the foreigners who live in this area.
There are a lot of reasons why the authorities here didn’t want help from us. Aside from issues of communication, misunderstanding language being top of it, they cannot be responsible, or accountable for our actions, in the event of injury or worse I’m sure it’d be a minefield.
By Sunday morning the worst of the fire had been quelled. A drive up a section of the mountain in front, and we could observe that above Sardal it was still smouldering. I phoned my friend Marko, who lived near there to check they were ok, and to see if they needed any assistance. They were ok and at that time didn’t need help. The fire hadn’t restarted.
Later that day, things changed, and he phoned for help, as the fire picked up. But by the time I got there the GNR police and and the fire fighters turned us away because of the danger and because they felt able to control the situation without assistance.
This situation repeated itself the following day. Fires reignited in the area, numerous foreigners went to assist, but by the time many of us got there there was little we could do. Either the fires were left to burn, because they were not accessible, or they were extinguished by the local fire brigade, and fire fighting planes.
That afternoon there was a meeting in which a number of foreigners agreed to patrol the areas that had burned,, for the next few days, to spot for reigniting fires.
The following weekend, Saturday night, around about 11.30 I got a phone call to take any diesel fuel I had up to the Ponte de Vigia area, as the freguesia truck, fighting the fires was running out of diesel. When I got there, the wind was whipping up, and fires were rekindling. By 1.30am the fires appeared to be out. Back home for a couple of hours of uneasy sleep.
The following morning, Sunday 15th October, although the patrols had been stopped, I took it upon myself to ride my dirt bike round the area, not convinced the fires would be out. By 12 midday, as I headed up past Enxudro, and out onto the ridge road that ran from Picota to Esculca, I started to see fires reignite. I rode to Ponte de Vigia where I hoped I’d have phone reception. When I got there I could see the truck of the guy who was manning the fire watch tower, I tried shouting to him about the fires, he couldn’t hear me above the sound of the wind (Ophelia had started). The door to the fire watch tower was locked, I turned to see what he was observing, a fire had broken out again in the same area as the night before. I phoned in a report and was told the Freguesia were on their way, and to get back in case they needed assistance.
On the way down, I got a phone call from my wife to meet her in he village, so I could take the truck, and she arranged to get a 1000 litre water container to stick on the back. I picked up the container, went back to the village, and filled it from the pump by the river. A guy I didn’t know, Sebastian, asked if I was going up to Luadas to help. I told him to get in and we headed off.
By the time we got up the mountain, to where I had left the fire, everything had changed, the wind howled, and the fire had spread. I stopped to ask the guys from the ICNF (forestry team) where the Freguesia team was, they had no idea. We headed down a track in the direction of the fire, only to be repelled by fire and smoke, and had to back up ASAP. I got another call from my wife telling me to head back down into the village of Luadas, where they needed us. We headed thru the village and toward Esculca, to be stopped on the road by one of the Freguesia guys, who told us to wait and their truck with the hose and pump would come down from the mountain when they needed more water.
The whole flank of the mountain east of Esculca was ablaze. Shortly after, 2 vehicles from the bombeiro’s arrived and headed into the blaze.
Everything seemed to be occurring so quickly. We were the first non Freguesia people up there other than a couple of guys from the village who had come to help. Within minutes guys from the Freguesia of Moura da Serra arrived, and Alfredo, the village mayor, ordered us all back up the mountain, from where we’d come.
The fire was raging.
The wind was unstoppable. I backed the truck in to support our council’s truck. I helped run the hose for the council, then had to move my truck so the Moura da Serra guys could get their truck in and run their hose out. Sebastian, Paul and Jean (other foreigners living here) were all trying to assist with the hoses to prevent the fire running down across the track, but it was hopeless, the fire towered above us, licked from trees on one side to the tops of trees on the other, a funnel of fire.
The guys from the ICNF were coming down the flank. 3 x 2 inch hoses to fight a leviathan of a fire. Then our council’s water ran out, and they couldn’t get the pump to run to pump from my truck.
Alfredo told me to go with the guys from the ICNF. I ran up the hill, and helped run their hose up the flank, a friend, Jose, was trying to hose the fire, he was in a t shirt, and getting burned by the heat from the fire only a couple of feet over from us. Jose came away, and I took over for a while. The guy from the ICNF started to set counter fires to try and run back into the fire to stop it from spreading, but to no avail. We were getting trapped and he called us out of the track and headed down. Everyone else had gone from that area, it was unstoppable.
This time, lack of water wasn’t the issue, or problems with communication, it was the mercurial nature of the hurricane winds, the shape of the mountains, luck, and nothing like adequate equipment or enough of it.
As I headed down the mountain to find my truck that had fortunately been moved, a new front opened up, beneath Picota, the tallest of the Acor mountain range, in the area of Relva Velha and Monte Frio. It was like it just spontaneously ignited. Then in a row, stretching for miles over the ridge, headed north the same thing appeared to occur, ignition after ignition. And then they joined up, one monsterous long line of fire. I turned to Alfredo and asked where to go now.? He looked out across the mountains and said its fucked, it’s all fucked. He told me to stay with the guys from the ICNF, in case they needed water.
By now it was all looking pretty hopeless. The fires were running unabated in our direction. As the guys from the ICNF tried to light counter fires, we watched as both the villages of Monte Frio and Relva Velha appeared to be engulfed in flames.
My wife, Sarah, phoned to find out what was going on, and whether she needed to evacuate. She had no car and was stranded. I can only imagine her fear. At that moment the fires were no nearer our house than they were the previous week, and although a danger they were still a few kilometres away, and there were some fire breaks where most of the eucalyptus had been clear cut.
My fear was that the fire would run down into the valley and spread westward with the wind, and run around the mountain infront of our house, and join up, trapping our house.
The fire above Luadas was running west, at that time, and had gone beyond Esculca and had got to the outskirts of Coja. We could see a huge smoke cloud rising over the ridge, from Texeira and Castanheira. They were ablaze again. Threatening us with being engulfed with fire from over the ridge, and trapping us.
The guys from the ICNF told us to stay put whilst they scouted the area to see what they could do. There was just 4 of us left on that bit of mountain, Hugo his dad, Sebastian, and me. Hugo continued to set counter fires in an effort to prevent the spread backward of the fire.
I realised, that in the fight against fires there is at times quiet, and a fair bit of standing around helpless, and it is an odd juxtaposition with the speed, ferocity and noise of the fire. On a personal level, with no training, or equipment you can do nothing. Against that wind, and in those tinder dry conditions, in retrospect, it was pointless even having been there.
Earlier, I had told Sarah she would have to make her own decisions as I may not be in a position to make them for her, that I may not be able to see her plight, or be able to communicate with her. When I finally got to speak to her on the phone, I told her to get out. She pleaded with me to come away from where we were, but like the fool I am I felt duty bound to stay, at least for as long as possible. It seemed to me that if we were there we could stop the fire from joining up with the one headed west, which would surely engulf our village, Benfeita and Luadas, killing everyone. That was my reasoning.
I asked her to phone someone to get her out. But for some reason she was unable to get thru to anyone else. I phoned our friend Jules and asked her if she would. I knew it was a big ask, as the fire from the Monte Frio range was circling round to join the fire from where I was. Despite the very present and real danger Jules risked her life to go and get Sarah.
I didn’t know Sarah was safe, until she messaged me that they had made it to the town of Tabua, via a place to top my phone up, so I could communicate with her. Some hours later.
We stayed on the mountainside for a while longer, the guys from the ICNF returned, and for a moment the bombeiro’s from coja, who just came to see what was happening where we were, then left. They said to keep light small counter fires, and work our way down the track.
There came a point where it was no longer viable to be on the mountainside, and the ICNF guys said they were going to Luadas, because that’s where they were from, as it looked like we had become surrounded by fire.
In the village of Luadas it was pretty chaotic, and full of people not knowing what to do, or even think. I spoke with a few people about what they were going to do, some planned on staying in Luadas, others going down to Benfeita to go into the church, the biggest building in the village, and probably the only one with some clear ground infront of it.
I thought about the history of the town I was from, how 2000 years ago a warrior queen hell bent on driving the Romans from Britain, set about destroying everything in her path. Colchester, the then Roman capital of Britain, was torched, and the fleeing Romans barricaded themselves in the temple, where the castle now stands, only to be burnt alive. I wasn’t planning on re-enacting that.
Seb asked one of the bombeiro’s what he thought was the best way out, there is no way out, came the reply. I thought differently.. I knew the tracks on the mountain like the back of my hand, mostly from dirt biking them. I thought, there was the smallest of chances to get out across the face of the mountain to the road below Picota.
Sarah pleaded with me by text to get out. I didn’t know if we could. The smoke from behind was closing the gap in the now night sky, and it looked like the fire may already be over the ridge headed our way. The fire that had headed to Coja, was now at the west of Luadas. And had joined up with the fire from Monte Frio, and had swept round the other way to Sardal. We were almost encircled. it was only a matter of minutes before they joined up, and eventually sweep down to Benfeita.
Seb asked me what I wanted to do. I said lets go. As there was nothing we could do there anymore. The situation looked hopeless there, and I thought our only chance was to drive the tracks to the road. I asked him what he wanted to do, he said he was with me. As we headed up the track we ran into a couple who had been observing until they saw the fire above Luadas begin to sweep round to Sardal, closing the circle. They thought us crazy to go that way. I thought them crazy to stay.
I reiterated my warning to Seb, anything goes wrong in the next few minutes it was all over for us. For a guy who didn’t know how risk taking I am he was very trusting.
I emptied out the water that was left in the tank in the back of the truck, nearly a tank full, that was the futility of what we had gone to do, like the charge of light brigade, into the valley of death.
I drove that truck as fast as it would go. The whole time trying to keep away from the fire bearing down on us on 3 sides. By my reckoning it probably took 15 minutes to get to the road, about 15 kms, maybe more. But, the longest drive of my life. We got to within a few meters of the road. A tree down across our way. I stopped the truck. Grabbed my axe, hacked the end off the tree. Not enough, there were posts hidden in the ground, preventing driving past. Had to cut more. Then another vehicle arrived, and helped haul the tree out the way. They asked where we were headed. I said left to Picota, where it’s already burned, he said, better to go to Arganil. I asked Seb where he wanted to go, he said Tabua, where his wife and family were. I said I’d take him, as Sarah was there too. We followed the guy round he mountain toward Arganil, on several occasions headed close by other fires.
When we got to Arganil, we got some water, and headed across to Tabua.
Just as we got into Tabua Seb spotted his car, and found his wife. She was so pleased to see him alive, and so grateful.
I searched all over tabua for Sarah before she spotted me.
We sat in an area of empty car parking behind Lidl and waited. We met some people who had evacuated from near Santa Comba Dao, and said the IP3 road was closed. there were fires almost all around us again, and I wondered at the sense of coming here. it seemed like we were in a frying pan/fire situation.
the fires around seemed to ebb and flow with the dark, but it was really just the wind and smoke that hid their proximity. after a while i asked jules what she thought her husband mick would do, stay and observe, she said. i thought the same, and we stayed until embers started to head our way.
we drove across Tabua to behind the DWR garage, the only wide open place i knew in Tabua. and we sat there thru the uneasy night. i couldn’t sleep, full of adrenalin and knowing this was a time to have your wits about you, as the saying goes.
dawn broke, and the fires had’t got any nearer, Sarah asked a fireman about our village, gone he said, they’re all gone. my heart sank. i feared all the people i knew there dead.
we went to get something to drink in a cafe, where all the other foreigners had gone, Sarah saw a neighbour of ours and asked him of our house. he said it was gone. she collapsed in my arms.
We headed back to Benfeita. everywhere from Pisao on, was a war zone. the closer we got, the more burnt out the area. it seemed the worst hit.
on the last road to the house, where there had been 30 meter trees the day before, were blackened stumps.
our house, which once stood proud, now a burned out wreck, just part of the chimney, and the back wall stood.
what i have understood from this, so far, is that in a situation like this, and its fairly impossible to describe the enormoity of it if you didn’t experience it, is that you really have to be able to trust your own judgement, and not anyone else’s. in situaions where your life is being constantly endangered you have to have sufficient common sense aswell as the ability to hold it together, and pull out the best questions you can, to give you a chance of finding some good answers, and a chance of survival. sometimes that may mean asking the opinion of others, if nothing less than to check your reasoning isn’t crazy, but it is down to you, the individual to make the final call. it’s very easy to make a wrong one, and that’s where trusting your good judgement is reliant on having spent your life making judgement calls in difficult situations. if you want to live out here you need to be able to do this. the enormity of that fire disabled the ability to think or act rationally for many people. in that kind of situation you are dependant and others may also be dependant on your ability to think straight and act accordingly.
What it boils down to is ‘presence of mind’, without which nothing is possible, with it, all things………