this is my story



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.

photo courtesy of Haico & Else

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.

photo courtesy of Haico & Else

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.

addendum:

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………

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summer

not that i want to wish my life away, but it looks like summer is nearly over……thank god……

looking back over my photos, i don’t seem to have done very much, other than a very stressful trip back to the UK and then 2 weeks recovering not a lot has happened…but here’s a little snippetaubergine bee building cake carrots cherries flower1 flower2 flower3 kiwis snooks swimming tart toms woody

wooden flooring

i cut a fair number of trees for flooring boards

felled trees

enough for 150 square meters of flooring, but, in the end, not all the wooden flooring came from the forest

trees on trailer

some of it came straight from the mill. by the time i’d milled the trees for flooring, and got the boards back, i had to sticker them for a while in the building to dry out. then thickness plane them, before laying them. fortunately, my friend dan, loaned me his record 151 floor clamps that are like the dreadnought battleships of the floor clamp world

flooring

clamps

they were probably made at the same time as dreadnoughts, or taken from the same kind of design and cast out of rendered down battleship iron. they are huge and more like the windings of lock gates than floor clamps, nothing stands in their way, and there is even a satisfying ratchet sound as you wind them up.

anyway, suffice to say, i cut the boards as full lengths to span the rooms, except for the loft where they would have to exceeded 8 meters

loft floor

not for how they were going to look, but because they were slightly random widths, in the general neighbourhood of 7″ ( 175mm), give or take. and i knew, as they weren’t tongue and groove, just butted up, that it would be easier to get them to marry if they were single lengths rather than multiple lengths.

40 kgs of flooring brads later, and the floors got nailed. then eventually, sanded and finished.

old elm floor boards (i wish)

such a boar

the wild boar have been across our terraces with a vengeance, they’ve dislodged enormous edging stones, so big i can’t pick them up, they’ve dismantled steps. Some would argue that that is all part of living in the countryside, and whilst I tend to agree i would prefer it if they could do it somewhere else. Aside from the hellish expensive and time, fencing is just not an option, there is just too much land and it’s all slopey and rocky and it would look stupid so I have been stringing up ripped up bits of old pillow cases (which woody has taken great delight in tearing down) and in between ALL my other chores, i’ve been making meters and meters of bunting,

bunting

which also looks a bit silly but it seems to be working, now where’s that stone mason………

boar

mulch ado about nothing

 I have very little patience or energy for mulching, I know it’s easy enough and shouldn’t be that big a deal, but it is for me, there are so many other things I’d rather be doing, so this year I’ve decided that unless I can get the mulch from the two meadows either side of the vegetable garden or the terrace directly above I’m not bothering.

meadowtwo
For me heaving great piles of stuff from one end of my farm to the other in the blistering heat is a useless waste of my time and energy (I’m guessing that’s why people have wwoofers?), not to mention all the itching that goes on…..so, I’ve been doing it in stages.
Stage one, cut some swathes through each meadow and pile that up and save it and use it when dry, this also gives me the impression that I have a nice neat country park style garden and makes it easier to cut in stages.

meadow
A few weeks later I cut down the remaining grass which is so long now and flattened by all the rain that I have to cut twice, once with the blade and then with nylon string, with a few days and a rake up in between each cut

rakings
see, it’s already a faff, not to mention one Woody puppy who insists on trying to jump on the rake constantly and then there’s the poo!!! the dog poo which is also mixed into the mulch…doh, well I guess it’ll be good for something…..anyway, the end result is quite pleasing, and by the time I’ve done all this, it’s time to cut the grass again……phew

mulch 2 mulch1

drink up

elderflowers

yup am still making drinks, the weather has been  quite hot, so as fast as i make them they are being drunk. I made some more lemon and orange squash and also the usual elderflower cordial, both are freezable, which I have done along with bottles in the fridge for now…..

steeping

About 25 elderflower heads
Finely grated zest of 3 unwaxed lemons and 1 orange, plus their juice (about 150ml in total)
1kg sugar
Inspect the elderflower heads carefully and remove any insects (or just shake them, thats what I do). Place the flower heads in a large bowl together with the orange and lemon zest.
Bring 1.5 litres water to the boil and pour over the elderflowers and citrus zest. Cover and leave overnight to infuse.
Strain the liquid through a jelly bag or piece of muslin and pour into a saucepan. Add the sugar, the lemon and orange juice.
Heat gently to dissolve the sugar, then bring to a simmer and cook for a couple of minutes.
Use a funnel to pour the hot syrup into sterilised bottles. Seal the bottles with swing-top lids, sterilised screw-tops or corks. I usually bag some of it and freeze it too.



spring has sprung…..

…..and then it sort of went away again. It did peak a bit early with temperatures in the mid twenties, which is a bit odd given that it was only February and it went from 6 to 26 in less than two days. Needless to say I was quite ready for it, as it seems to do this every year and the last thing I want to be doing in the garden is panic digging!!! aside from the fact that panic digging is no good for your body, I prefer to give the soil a chance to warm up and digging can help it do this, so by the time the temperatures rose I was ready to sow, which i did, I put in rows and rows of parsnips and carrots

parsnips

turnips, kale and peas various other bits and pieces. All of which have germinated now (thanks to the heat).

I generally fleece all these first sowings

parsnips fleeceas this aides their germination and then they are also protected from any foul weather we may have. I have known it to hail in May here, so the fleece stays on until then and gets raised up with hoops made from willow.

hoops 2

hoops

I will continue to sow for a few more weeks and then that’s it for sowing direct.

The blossoms and wild flowers are peaking,the display this year is spectacular, especially the plum blossom

bloss 8so hopefully this will mean we will have a bumper crop if, of course the frosts don’t come and ruin everything.

bloss 1

woody woodsWe had a nasty experience with our giant puppy Woody, despite our best efforts at keeping him safe from the processionary caterpillars he went and stuck his entire face in a nest and had an anaphylactic reaction, passing out half way down the farm, leaving me to try and carry him back up to the truck covered in poo and weighing 33 kilos, luckily a friend passed by and helped me finish the job. Woody is OK but we are having to walk him away from the pines, which is not easy being as we live in a pine forest, he goes on the schist trail every morning and the afternoons we go to the local national park

wood pile

primroses1needless to say he has rather alot of energy and our nights are not quiet or sleep filled…….

spot the dog
I’m secretly hoping that the foul weather will continue as it will kill off the last of the caterpillars and then life can go back to normal and Woody can gallumph around on the farm again……