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Baptism of Fire

On November 1st, All Saints Day, which is a public holiday here in Portugal, I went to the Quinta to work on the land. It was a pristine bright sunny afternoon and I decided to do some more clearing and make a small fire to burn some of the brambles and broom I had already cut down. Having worked in gardens in the past I had some experience of doing a ‘controlled burn’, but these ‘burns’ had been on the moist ground of England, and I did not fully take into account that not only was it a very warm November in Portugal, but it hadn’t rained hard since Spring.

On a fairly wide flattish area I placed a circle of rocks and sheets of slate as a barrier but what I did not do was adequately clear the surrounding land. My other mistake, I now realize, was that I lit the fire on a terrace and not at the bottom of the land. When a gust of wind blew up from the valley the flames whipped up and quickly jumped the rocks and set the surrounding dry grass alight. I tried desperately to quell the blaze by grabbing huge sheets of slate from nearby and throwing them on the fire. But the fire continued to spread and began writhing up the terrace above and amongst the pine trees. I knew I had no hope of stopping it. Terrified, but also somehow clearheaded, I ran to the car and drove as fast as I could to the nearby village of Benfeita to raise the alarm.

As it was a holiday I was afraid that there would be nobody around but luckily I saw my friend Dick. I told him what had happened, he said he would call the fire station, and I headed back up the mountain and down the dirt track to the Quinta. I had only been away for 15 minutes but the fire was now a huge inferno that was roaring up the mountain. While I had heard about the relentless destructive power of forest fire in this area of Portugal, the speed with which this fire was ripping through the pines was something I could never have expected. It was absolutely terrifying and I was afraid that it might spread to engulf the entire valley.

I drove back up the track to the road above to which some of the flames had now reached.

Dick was there, along with a number of locals. Luckily the wind had changed direction and was now blowing the flames back on themselves. All of us were watching helplessly, praying that the flames would not jump the road. Then the first Bombeiros fire truck came charging up the mountain and the fire was soon under control, being doused with water from above.

But I feared for our beloved Quinta down below. I could not see anything from above because of the smoke, so I drove down to Fraga da Pena and ran up the huge stone steps past the waterfalls and along the trail to the Quinta as fast as I could. While the firemen were advancing from above through the pines, some of the terraces were burning below and the fire was creeping down toward the valley floor. I grabbed a branch and began frantically beating at the flames. After the fire was out I was choking and absolutely exhausted. A few firemen came down with their hoses and doused the charred ground. I found myself embracing them and saying ‘Muito Obrigado’ over and over again.

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As I looked around I was greatly relieved. All of the buildings were fine and the beautiful schist walls that we love so much were not burned. In fact I could now see so much more than before. There were walls and steps revealed that had been completely overgrown. With all of the grass, ferns and brambles burned away the true contours of the terraces could be seen and the ground even looked ready for planting. While many pine trees were burned around the houses, I saw that I would have wanted to cut most of them anyway, ironically, as protection from the danger of fire.

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As I walked back to the car I met up with Cynthia and our dear friend Maggie in an explosion of love, relief, shock and hugs and then we went to meet with the police nearby. Despite being in a state of shock and exhaustion I was surprised that my Portuguese was flowing pretty well and told the three police officers everything that had happened. The head officer told me to calm down and not to worry. It was possible I may have to pay a fine but maybe not. In summer it would have been much worse he said. They were all remarkably friendly and there was no edge of stiff formality or blame at all.

After a very badly needed and very healing cup of tea, Cynthia and I drove to Pardierios to find Antonio and Elsa, who we are in the final stages of buying the Quinta from. I didn’t know what to expect. I thought they may be very upset and angry because of the deep connection they feel to that land, so I was readying myself to bear whatever I had to bear to maintain the good relationships we have with them.

It was dark now and as we got out of the car near the café I could see Antonio’s silhouette as he stood waiting for us. As we walked toward him he opened his arms to us and embraced us both with such love that something broke and we all shed some tears. I said I was very sorry and he said it was an accident and could have been much worse.

We then went into the bar and saw Elsa, who, while obviously distressed, accepted my apologies with no sense of blame. After a glass of wine and gestures of support from several of the other villagers, Antonio and Elsa’s husband, Joao, drove us over to Benfeita to meet with Alfredo the head of the village council.

He was behind the bar in a café off a beautiful cobblestone street. Joao ordered us all Martinis mixed with beer, before we could even ask for tea, but we were both pleasantly surprised at how good they were, and it definitely seemed to be easing the shock! Soon we were in a smoky backroom huddled around a table. The purpose of meeting Alfredo was that, being the village chief, he was respected by the locals and had leverage with the police. One of the things we were worried about were the pines that had burned further up from our land and whether the owners would want compensation. He told us not to worry, that he and Antonio would speak with the owners, who lived in Lisbon, and hopefully all would be ok. He told us to come to his office at 10am the next morning and he would call the police on my behalf and tell them how well I had responded and so hopefully there would be no fine! I think I shook hands with more people that day than I ever have in my whole life. The experience of genuine care and support from the villagers has been deeply moving. There has been no anger, no blame, no being ostracized as a ‘stupid’ foreigner, which I feared. In fact when I said to people that I had been foolish in where I had lit the fire, nearly all had some story to tell of a fire or a near miss in the past that they were involved with. Most just seemed relieved that it hadn’t happened in the summer and was contained so quickly and nobody was hurt.

So it is five days later now and while the shock still lingers and the terrifying images of burning trees still haunt me, together Cynthia and I was been ‘processing’ the whole event. I have definitely learned a very healthy respect for the fire danger here and a hard lesson about doing a ‘controlled burn’ in this country. We have yet to find out if we will have to pay a fine or any compensation for pines that were burned. Yet despite all of this I now feel the winds of something positive coming out of this event lifting my spirits.

The most moving thing is the depth of relationship we have forged with the community here, namely the Quinta’s local villages of Pardierios and Benfeita. It was quite something a couple of days ago when I was speaking with an old lady about the fire and the support we had received from everyone. She smiled, leaned toward me and looked me straight in the eye and said intently, “Here we are good people, and you are good people”. I can’t really convey the beauty with which she said this. It brought tears to my eyes.

On the positive side the fire gave the land a baptism of fire cleaning much of the land of years of overgrowth leaving the buildings unscathed. Once rain comes and washes away the ash it should look a lot better than it did before in many ways. The greatest damage is to the pines above the Quinta where a fairly large gash has been burnt in the hillside. While a pine forest can be a beautiful sight on a mountainside, pines are not indigenous to this area of Portugal. Grown for timber and pulp, along with the eucalyptus, they now dominate these mountains and surrounding lands. They grow very close together and crowd out any other species. A couple of nights ago we realized what we wanted, and felt called, to do with this cleared land. We want to plant it full of indigenous trees; chestnut, oak, mimosa and others that over time will grow into a beautiful varied woodland….and we also want to cover the hillside with flowers! One can now see old trails winding up the slopes that were used when this valley was inhabited before the pines took over. The views from the trails are gorgeous and could be strengthened and even a few benches placed in some choice spots next to new trees.

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So we are going to be planting a lot of trees this winter, both on this charred hillside and fruit trees on the Quinta below. If you would like to donate a tree or three please use the paypal donation box at the bottom of the page or if you would like to send a contribution let us know. Also if you would like to come and help plant some trees you are very welcome!!

2 Comments

  1. sophie says:

    this may be of interest to you, and anyone else worried about forest fires (all profit goes to the bombeiros):
    “Gardening with Fire: the essential self- help manual for Home and Garden design in areas at risk of fire”
    http://www.pureportugal.info/gardeningwithfire

    very relieved to hear you are both ok!

    xx sophie

  2. Cynthia says:

    Hi Sophie,
    Thanks for the book suggestion! We ordered it today!
    Cheers,
    Cynthia

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