baby steps

The journey since the fire has been excruciating and difficult for both us…….we’ve done the journeying separately and together. Circumstances dictated that I return to the land and that he didn’t. I couldn’t turn my back on the one place that had afforded us so much hope and joy, in the wake of the fire, when all seemed utterly lost and broken, clinging to the one thing that had given both of us so much pleasure and pain was my only option, but not his. His reasons for not returning were complicated, mine were more simplistic.

Since returning to the land I  have :

had remains of house removed, upsetting

sold scrap metal (twice, long story), boring

had new driveway made from old house, expensive

bought a caravan, weird and exciting

caravan bought - 1

had caravan moved to site of burnt house, macabre

caravan moving - 1

had metal structure built over caravan from burnt crap and some new crap, resourceful

metal structure - 1.jpg

had battery house built, and solar stuff bought and installed, deja vu

battery house - 1 (1).jpg

had grape wires and posts replaced, expensive


had over 80 olive trees pruned or chopped down, distressing and hard work

olive pruning - 1 (1)

had a chunk of burnt forest removed, relief

firewood - 1 (1).jpg

painted the crap out of the caravan, exhausting but satisfying

painting - 1

removed loads of stuff from caravan, freeing

rubbish - 1

had bore hole pump fixed, strenuous and mucky

bore hole pump - 1

had running water plumbed into outdoor sink, luxurious

sink - 1

made myself a loo, with an old chair, a Leatherman and a rusty saw, awesome

enjoyed the cowboy shower, familiar


In between all this, I’ve nurtured the gardens

Planted new trees

Saved some flower seeds

had the world’s smallest wood burner installed, very very necessary

Completing all this has given me such a huge sense of achievement, creating an almost instant home, a place to lick my wounds was utterly necessary, siting it where I have was almost like a calling, one that I could not ignore

I have hope again, hope where there was none, a feeling that I never, ever want to feel again
It has filled my heart with joy, to see the land restore itself, hear the river running, listen to the buzzards playing, the owls calling at night all the sounds that were so familiar to me, the sounds that told me I was home, the sounds that gave me comfort and held me when nothing else could.
This is a place that welcomes me, enriches me and anchors me….the process is almost complete, it’s job almost done, it’s nearly time to move on, the shortening of the days offers time to rest and reflect, the dawning of the next chapter will emerge as the sun starts to rise in the sky and the days are no longer dark……

 

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there is no “normal” anymore

Like for many others in this area, there is no “normal” anymore, there’s  “before the fire”

and “after the fire”


for those of you that have followed our story and the one from before moving to Portugal, we have been constantly building since we married (21 years ago)…….

I had a home for a bit in the UK and then we built a new one….

which didn’t really become my home

we then moved to Portugal and rented various hovels!!

We’d been living in our new house for 2 years, but it was a building site most of the time, with no running hot water or bathroom, that was fine

I liked my outdoor bathroom and when the Rayburn was on there was always hot water on the stove top…..

We had almost finished all the very expensive and complicated plumbing which would have given us two sources of hot water

one from the Rayburn in the winter

and one from a solar water panel for the summer……….

we were two days away from filling up the tanks and testing the whole thing……

Having a home was the most wonderful thing, unpacking all our stuff which we hadn’t seen for years

getting it out, finding places for it, mounting pictures, paintings and photographs

actually being comfortable

cooking and eating amazing food from our gardens


harvesting for the winter


I had just finished making 120 litres of grape juice

we had, rather ironically just finished paying for and sorting out all the paperwork for a very expensive olive grove on the other side of the valley in front of the house, which has now exploded too……

having an actual life that wasn’t full of stress, hard labour, long hours……

I was so proud of the house, what we had done, how beautiful it was……ourlifehandmade

sadly that period has ended
that chapter of our lives was abruptly closed on the 15th October, a day and night that will forever be melted onto our hearts

please help us if you can :

https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/sarah-and-rick-whitehead

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………

stone floors

i wanted stone flags for the kitchen, as it was going to be a heavy trafficked area, that we wanted to be able to walk straight in from the farm with muddy boots. there wasn’t any york stone at the farm, however there were a number of large slabs of schist on various roofs of the previous buildings that made up the site. during the demolition process, 6 years ago, i had stacked the stone away with the intention of using it for that purpose.

pile

all that was required was cutting it into flags. i didn’t have a wet bed cutter, or a disc cutter with a water jet, so i had to suffer the dust of cutting it with the disc cutter dry. i won’t bore you with the hazards of that, but you can imagine. breathing difficulties for a while.

abreathing difficulties
i figured on using 5 or 6 sizes of flags to create a random type effect rather than a set pattern. and given the sizes i opted for it meant cutting about 120-130 flags.

astack a stone

i drew an approximation of how i thought i could lay them, and pretty much followed it.

aunderway

i’d offset the backing osb to give me enough room to bed them in and keep the same level across from the wooden floor that it joined. i uni-bonded the osb and stuck the flags down with tile adhesive, then grouted them

agrouted floor

the flags currently aren’t sealed, not sure there’s any point, it’s fairly water repellent.  thought they look pretty farm house kitchen worthy

afarm kitchen floor

afinished colours

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)

windows

sometimes, it can take what seems like forever to write something, or do something for that mater, sometimes the words just don’t appear, and then sometimes they do, sometimes out of other people’s mouths, and about things other than what you were thinking about. sometimes they come out of the ether, and sometimes words just fit. and most of the time, kind of like windows, they need to be tailored to the thing they are there to describe the limits of.windas

i had written an essay on why i built the windows for our house, and how, but right now it doesn’t seem that relevant. suffice to say the whole design for them went through numerous changes like other parts of the house, and where i ended up, was wanting to use windows that worked sympathetically with the style and design of the building. i looked at a lot of different designs, and, eventually, either i realised something, or i understood that maybe there are reasons for window style and placement beyond aesthetics or utilitarian function. what i wanted to achieve with the choice of glazing design was the addition of grace and elegance, or the addition of more of it.

window1

the glazing needed, very much, to compliment the building, not detract from it, or undermine its aesthetic. in my opinion, to achieve either grace or elegance, you need to have a sense of form and an understanding of proportion and how they both relate.

looking at the size and shape of windows in the early colonial period of american architectural history, specifically the existing stone ender houses of rhode island (the overall design basis for what i’ve built) one thing becomes very apparent, the original windows were tiny.

image_preview

(Arnold House, Lincoln, Rhode Island, 1693)

more recent windows in the same and similar buildings are larger as glass became cheaper, and window tax repealed. windows become architectural features, more than portals thru which light and air were relayed. in designing a building i think the scaling and layout of windows is crucial. partly because of the way light plays inside the building as much as how openings shape the rest of the form.

pile

small windows seem to cause  or require a kind of participation in a way that a large sheet of glass doesn’t.  kind of, the difference between looking at a giant landscape painting or a miniature. it requires an effort to look at a view thru a window rather than no effort to be immersed into a landscape that exists only the other side of a huge glass wall.  it is also the difference between a place that is private and one that is public. out of each window in our house is a different view, a different story. its like the difference between living in a snug or living in a public library. whilst this is the land of light, its also the land of hiding away from it in the summer, when it is too bright.

the design i chose was a simple side hung casement with half a dozen lights (that’s pane’s to you), an ultra traditional window style, in keeping with the rhode island stone enders,

full house

that was easy to duplicate in numbers. the one thing i will say about the construction process is how imperative it was to try and maintain sequences of construction that allowed me to manufacture in batches.

rails

“batches? we don’t need no stinkin’ batches!” you may say, but i say repeating things accurately is a process you need to do in sequence, and if you have a lot to do its imperative you try and minimize the risk of error or discrepancy between same items.

painted

you have to be as systematic as you can be, and window construction is a good object lesson for this. stairs similarly. making windows needs to be about replicating a clearly defined idea. you could call it a plan. you could call it anything you like so long as you can reproduce it.

maybe in the future i will make the opportunity to manufacture my own glass panes, and reglaze the windows. what i wanted to achieve was what is known as a ‘lively’ look with the glazing, and not the flat dull and lifeless reflection of sheet rolled glass. in the preindustrial age when glass was blown and spun, and panes were much thinner, there was greater colour in the glass and more imperfections, bubbles and flecks, and as a result of age slumping, as glass is always in a partial liquid state. why i would like it glazed this way isn’t nostalgia, or a wish to recreate a historical piece, but because light refracts differently with blown glass, it creates a very different feeling inside and out the building, it imbues the building with something else. spirit.