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Fire at the Quinta

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It was Thursday afternoon I was home working on the computer and Pete had gone to the land. It was then that I got a call from Elsa (one of the people we are buying Quinta de Mizarela from). She speaks some English and said –there’s fire at the Quinta! We spoke briefly; I immediately called our friend Maggie to take me there. This was just the beginning of the convergence of good friends and neighbors helping us in a myriad of ways.

As I waited anxiously at the top of our track Elsa called back to tell me Pete was OK. For some reason it really hit me then what was happening. Once Maggie picked me up and we broke over the crest of the mountain I could see the smoke. It was big but not huge, my mind wasn’t thinking rationally and yet it was at the same time. My body was already in shock as the adrenaline raced though me. I was shaking and cold and everything seemed very quiet as Maggie continued to grab my hand and tell me it was OK.

We finally got there and our friend Dick was at the top of the track along with lots of other people. It was a relief to see him but all I wanted to do was run down the track and find Pete. Dick embraced me with a big hug and just held me to calm me down before he let me look for Pete.

As I ran down the track, my legs going so fast I thought I was going to dive head first. As I ran I heard Maggie yelling behind me to watch what I was running into. It was then I understood her concern, the smoke was getting thick and I could hear the burning of the trees. I stopped and knew that I needed to be careful. We both called for Pete and got no answer. We ran back up the hill and down another track toward the firemen and still I couldn’t find Pete. The fire had jumped the dirt track and was going up the mountain. Fireman and men from the village worked side by side. I ran back passing some oncoming fire trucks. I had no idea what they thought as they saw this woman running around the fire, I was just happy they didn’t stop me from looking for Pete.

Once again at the top of the track I met Dick. Dick said the police needed to talk to Pete. Our car was parked down at the entrance of Fraga de Pena so Maggie and I went down there and hiked up the waterfalls toward the land from a different direction. It was calming to be surrounded by beauty and the rushing waterfalls. It was surreal as I passed tourists at the waterfall that had no idea what was happening right above them.

Before reaching the land I found Pete coming down. He looked good and I was relieved. After a quick embrace we headed down the hill to speak with the police.

So many amazing things have happened since the fire began 5 days ago. I still feel like I’m in shock and denial. When I go to the Quinta I’m always a little surprised that it’s not all a dream. Little by little I am accepting things as they are and with this there is space to embrace the whole picture, all the love and support we have received, the fact that the houses and much of the land are OK and the ache in my heart when I think of the devastation of what the fire has done.

There are many people that stand out in my mind, the first and foremost is Antonio. Antonio, the spoon maker who is selling us the biggest part of the land. I will never forget as Pete and I drove back to the village after the police came to our house to take the report. We were so tired and yet we knew we had to go back and find Elsa and Antonio. I had no idea what to expect. When we drove up there was a group of men in front of the café, they all turned to look at us. It was dark so I couldn’t see their faces. From the crowd someone came toward us with their arms outstretched. It was Antonio. He embraced us both as the three of us stood together. I cried, Antonio and Pete had tears. In such a soft beautiful voice Antonio said, “Nao problema, calma, calma”.

No matter what happened after that it didn’t matter. Antonio was my main concern. He loves the Quinta so much and I feel honored that he is entrusting the land to us. There has been no blame coming from him or anyone, I think I find this the most touching.

Living here people have a different relationship to fire. Everyone has had close calls when doing controlled burns and some have even had small fires start. Everyone knows that what each person does could affect everyone. It would have been very easy for this fire to get out of control and threaten the three surrounding villages. I’m touched at the love and understanding that people have shown us in the midst of their own vulnerability when it comes to the danger of fire.

Elsa is a woman that doesn’t show her emotions, she’s always very relaxed and easy to get along with but sometimes I don’t know what she is feeling. She loves the land very much and I was worried that she would be very upset. When she originally showed us the land one of the houses roofs had caved in. She hadn’t seen it like that and when she did she choked back the tears. It was then I realized how much the Quinta meant to her. So the night of the fire I wasn’t sure how she would respond. She had every right to be upset and angry but just like Antonio she was very supportive and didn’t show any anger or blame. I was so relieved.

Another Antonio from Pardeiros was also wonderful. As Antonio, Pete and I stood outside the café he approached us and gave us a lot of helpful suggestions on what to do. And it was much later that evening we found out that he was going to spend the night at the Quinta to make sure the fire didn’t restart. And it was a good thing he did – we met him there the next morning and the fire had re-ignited and they had to put it out again.

Alfredo – the President of the Junta at Benfeita (kind of like the mayor of a town), also stands out. After having some wine at the café the night of the fire Antonio and Joao (Elsa’s husband) thought we should go talk to Alfredo. This was important because Alfredo could calm people down if there was problem. This is when we witnessed first hand the beauty of the village system here in Portugal. Antonio, Joao, Pete and I drove to Benfeita. We met with Alfredo in the dimly lit room in the back of his café. Joao was very formal and calmly explained to Alfredo what had happened. That Pete had started the fire but had done everything right in sounding the alarm and fighting alongside the firemen.

Alfredo listened calmly, again with no judgment. He said there is no problem and all the people that needed to be talked to would be. He said to be calm and not preoccupy our minds with trying to find the other landowners where the fired had burned. He said that would be taken care of. Amazingly both he and Antonio told Pete that he could go back to the land and continue working and even start another fire but this time to do a few things differently!

As I sat there in this dimly lit room I felt honored to be a part of this community of people. Everything was being taken care of with humanity, seriousness and care, without anger, judgment or heaviness.

Alfredo told us to come back the next morning at 10 and he would call the police and tell them that we were good people and basically did all we could and that it was an accident. We did this and it was all very simple and quick.

After the meeting in the back room we stood at the bar of the café. Pete and I hadn’t eaten, we were in shock by all that had happened both the good and the bad. It was then that Joao ordered martinis for everyone. There is a specialty here – martini and beer mixed together and I have to say it tasted great! I couldn’t drink it all or I would not have been able to walk but what I did drink was perfect.

As we left Pardeiros that night Pete and I were both stunned. It’s hard to explain what we had experienced. All I knew was I was grateful that the fire wasn’t worse than it was and that we were surrounded by good friends and neighbors.

Maggie – our dear friend who drove me to the fire. She’s a very strong woman and her strength has helped me. We went to her house a couple of days after the fire and talked over tea. We told her how we wanted to replace the pines with indigenous trees and she was thrilled. She said she had 20 baby oak trees that she had sprouted from the seed and she wanted to give them to us for the Quinta. She already had this idea before we told her our vision so once again we found ourselves on the same page with Maggie.

Lastly there’s Dick. Dick actually told us about the Quinta when we first met him. He may do our renovation on the first house. Besides being there for me at the top of the hill Pete told me that it was Dick that helped sound the alarm. Pete had driven to Benfeita when the fire first started. He was running around trying to get someone to call the Bombeiros (firemen) and then he saw Dick. Dick took care of everything and Pete was able to go back to the land and save the bottom terraces from burning. I don’t know but I think Pete just knowing Dick was there was probably very comforting.

It’s been 5 days since the fire and the care from everyone we meet continues to touch my heart. I’ve been back to the land a few times and it is still devastating to see the blackened ground.

It would be so easy to be victimized and dramatic about all of this but that would be so disrespectful to all that has been given to us. This fire isn’t about how I feel; it’s about what is the right next step. It’s about bracing the reality of all that has happened and follow the same thread that guided us here in the first place.

There is a big scar on the mountain right now that goes up from the Quinta. It’s a black mark between the pines. As Pete and I spoke we both knew that we wanted to make this black mark colorful. We want to plant indigenous trees and flowers. It will be transformed from first a mountain covered in pines, to a mountain with a black scar to a mountain with beautiful Oaks, Chestnut, Alder and other trees we don’t even know about. The scar will turn into a marker to show what can come out of a devastating fire.

We are more inspired and urgent than ever to create this project. The people of the village have embraced us and it has infused us with energy to move forward.

I see the Quinta renovated, full of life, people, gardens, flowers and trees. We will need to plant many many trees to cover the affected area but I’m determined we will do it.

As I sit here five days after the fire I feel all that has happened is part of the trajectory that we were already on. It’s been hard but it’s been good. I would never say that the fire was a good thing but I will say that it has given us and everyone around us an opportunity to rise to our highest and to me there isn’t anything better than that.

Sending much love,

Cynthia

3 Comments

  1. sophie says:

    so sorry to hear about your fire (next time wait until AFTER it’s rained before trying to burn anything!!). i know how devastating it must be, but there is a positive side to it all in that, once we get the rain (tomorrow so the locals tell me), your quinta will be reborn – a truly miraculous and wonderful thing to witness.

  2. Cynthia says:

    Hi Sophie,
    We have learned so much about fire in the last few weeks! As you know it started raining yesterday (just as the locals said).

    We’re going to the quinta tomorrow to see how the rain is affecting the land. I can’t wait for the miracle that I know will be springing forth!

    Thank you for your words and support!
    Cynthia

  3. sophie says:

    hoorah for the rain!!
    today we started burning all our cleared brambles, mato, etc.
    only a small fire, and the surrounding land is very damp, but the bigger sparks are still enough to start little fires where they land. luckily it’s not so dry that it takes hold quickly, but you still need to be vigilant. it’s something we really need to make ‘newcomers’ aware of – it’s frightening how quickly and easily a forest fire can start and get totally out of control.
    looking forward to seeing some photos of your quinta bursting back into life
    x sophie

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