Thursday, July 6, 2017

After the fire

June saw Portugal's worst forest fires in living history....174 square miles of central Portugal burned and tragically, 64 deaths and people still in hospital.

Area of fire damage

We were lucky, the fire reached the top of our village then, as we were evacuated, took a turn and moved upwards...we were lucky. People have lost their land, their home, their family, their life.

We were very lucky.

We ran, we ran for the coast....away from the fire, away from the smoke, away from the fear.  But in making this trip we drove along the main road out of town passing the burnt-out cars where people died  in their cars, fleeing their homes as the fire moved at over 200 miles an hour, at temperatures which melted glass.  I try not to think too much about what that was like for them.

The fear of being surrounded and trapped by fire was very real, friends of ours in other locations were already surrounded in their homes. What I'll never, ever forget is the smell of fire, the yellow colour of the sky, the sick churning of fear and the basic instinct to flee - but what surprised me was the sound of fire....a boom as trees went up in flames and the sound of birds singing as they made a desperate bid to escape too.

Here is a video of the fire coming over the hill into our village and our car journey out of town and you'll get a sense of what I mean.

The reason for the fire is not yet confirmed, but what is known is that the fire created it's own 'weather'...created an inverse tornado which spread the fire far and wide with a terrifying strength.  It was certainly helped in its progress by the eucalyptus trees planted everywhere (for the paper pulp market) a tree which just loves to burn.

There's been a lot said (and the debate continues) about the cause, the blame, what can be done to enforce the laws relating to eucalyptus farming and changes to the law to make sure this never happens again.  It won't be easy...change is never easy and in Portugal, I fear it'll be even harder....but change has to happen.

What has struck me has been the support 'after the fire'.   Very quickly donations started coming in...currently over 2 million euros has been donated.  Clothes, shoes, and domestic products have been donated from across Europe and now fill  the previously empty spaces in Castinheira de Pera and other affected towns. Food and drink have also been donated, from someone dropping off a bag of drinks to the local fire station to corporates donating thousands of litres of water.

Water delivery

Clothing donations

Days after the fire swept through, the road crews were re-painting lines on the road where people died trying to escape. Burnt trees were being felled and chipped.  Electricity poles were being replaced and cables re-strung.  Just 2 and half weeks since the fire, we've had our fibre optic cable reconnected.  The infrastructure support has been impressive.

Working on the road 

But 'after the fire' the landscape has changed dramatically and in some ways the sepia tones which now dominate are strangely beautiful.  The shape of the trees are stark against the black wasteland and exploded olive tress create unusual shapes, the landscape has altered and revealed views through the forest to pathways and old stone buildings.

So what is left 'after the fire'?  Frustration at the eucalyptus farming practices, a need for more emergency services training, fear of the smell of smoke and grief, as we all come to terms with what has happened to us, to our friends, neighbours, acquaintances and all the people we don't know.

But there is huge pride in the local fire crews (many of whom are volunteers), there is a determination to rebuild and regrow and there is a movement for change, to ensure that this never happens again.  As new growth already starts to come through in the burnt landscape it's a time for new beginnings.

If I have got facts wrong then I apologise to the reader.  These are just my thoughts and are not meant to represent the thoughts of anyone else.  

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