Issue 30

Fighting Forest Fires in Portugal

By Julie Dawn Fox

“Do you think it will come this far?” I ask Cristina, my next-door-but-one neighbour. The anxiety I felt was surely written all over my face.

“Only if the wind changes,” she replies, as if it were obvious.

“Is it likely to?”

We both contemplate the patch of orange flames expanding across the hillside, creeping ever closer to our village.

Cristina shrugs, a typical Portuguese gesture. “Maybe, maybe not,” she replies. I find no comfort in her words, just a hint of impatience at my ignorance.

I consider Cristina’s words, still uncertain as to how worried I should be. Was it time to evacuate? Grab the dog and our valuables and get away while we still could? Should we stick around and try to save the house? A mental picture of the giant propane bottle underneath my kitchen window pops unbidden into my mind. I don’t want to be anywhere near that when it explodes.

I’ve seen many forest fires since moving to Portugal but none this close to my house. The hillside opposite our village has a light sprinkling of street lamps but is otherwise a black mass at night.

Tonight, it’s alive and angry.

Half an hour ago, an excess of bright light had caught my eye as I glanced out of the living room window. It was too big to be a street lamp or a headlight, although it seemed to be moving. More than moving, it was pulsing and swelling. That’s when I realised it was a fire.

My gut lurched and panic set in. In the dark, it was impossible to gauge exactly how close it was to my house. The fact that I could see the edges of the wildfire extending meant that it was too close for comfort, wherever it was.

A flash of blue light stopped me ringing the emergency number for forest fires; someone had obviously done that already. Even so, there was no way I could go to bed without knowing that the wildfire was under control and not about to burn us alive while we slept. I threw some emergency items into a bag, just in case, and ventured into the village to find out what was going on.

It seems I wasn’t the only one who was worried. As I walked down our narrow lane, other villagers emerged from their homes, joining a trickle of people in search of a better location from which to assess the situation. It must be serious, I thought; there’s never a soul in these streets after dark unless it’s the village festival.

Having given up on Cristina as a source of information, I tore my eyes away from the flashing blue lights and the rippling orange lines across the valley to observe my other neighbours. They are huddled in small groups on our vantage point, calmly chatting and watching the action. No one else looks panicked. Mildly concerned perhaps, but more curious than anything else. If you’ve grown up with the ever-present threat of forest fires, I suppose you must develop a kind of immunity to them. Or maybe the terror is always there, but best kept to yourself for fear of ridicule.

I don’t care how silly they think I am. I will never be blasé about forest fires, especially not living where I do, surrounded by highly flammable, poorly-tended eucalyptus plantations.

Forest fires are something that I used to see on the news, tearing through distant lands and devastating homes, farms and countryside. Watching these images of orange flames, blackened stumps, the reds and yellows of emergency services battling against a ferocious beast, I’d feel for the people who’d lost loved ones or their livelihoods but soon forget about them.

Such fires are no longer abstract and far-flung. They’re real and far too frequent. My husband mocks me but every time I see or smell a thick plume of smoke, I wonder where it’s coming from and whether it’s just someone burning off the waste from their land or the start of something that will engulf us in flames.

Whenever I hear the whop whop whop of helicopter blades overhead, I look up to see if there is a huge sack of water dragging behind it, ready to be dumped onto a raging fire.

There’s a reservoir a few kilometres away, which should be somewhat reassuring, I suppose, but it also means that these unsettling flights pass my house almost every day in the height of summer. I know there’s a major fire going on when twin-engine planes join the helicopters. Or when the sun is obliterated by thick smoke.

The worst thing is that almost a quarter of Portugal’s 25,000 annual fires are set deliberately, particularly those that start at night.

I cannot for the life of me understand how anyone could get pleasure from watching as terrified neighbours running around, desperately trying to prevent their homes, livestock and livelihoods from being devastated by flames. There’s an argument that the news coverage encourages copycat arsonists. I can see how the dramatic flaming backdrop to reports of raging fires might be stimulating rather than discouraging to those who think fire is fun. Unfortunately, Portuguese television companies seem reluctant to ditch the high-impact imagery.

Cynics claim that these deliberate fires are not just the work of thrill and glory-seeking arsonists running around with matches. Wildfires can prove quite lucrative to those with pockets to line.

Paying private companies to rent aircraft for aerial firefighting is not something that encourages prevention rather than cure. Thankfully, the government have recognised the flaws inherent in that strategy and have begun buying their own aircraft, to be manned by air force personnel. In the meantime, the private company is still under contract. Like the majority of Portuguese people, I can’t help but wonder about the extent of corruption when there’s such a huge financial incentive to have more fires than fewer.

It’s not just the companies renting equipment that stand to benefit. Eucalyptus crops are used to make paper and cellulose. They can still be used for cellulose even after they’re burnt but they’ll fetch only a third of their usual price on the market; the farmer has no choice but to accept the reduced amount for his otherwise useless crops. That said, if they’ve taken out insurance, maybe all is not lost, which leads to further suspicion and speculation.

Corruption aside, the other major cause of forest fires is accidents. I don’t consider tossing burning cigarette ends from car windows when you’re driving through a forest to be accidental. I think it’s criminal, as is leaving glass bottles lying around.

In addition to the thoughtless actions of careless people, many wildfires are caused by well-intentioned farmers. In a bid to control grazing, they burn off patches of grassland. All too often the wind picks up and the fires get out of hand. This type of fire causes plenty of damage on exposed mountains but the real problems start when they reach the forests.

Eucalyptus trees smell invigorating, especially after heavy rain, but their essential oils prove deadly. Bark from these trees peels off in strips which, when left untended, collect at the base of the trunks. With all this oil and papery bark it takes no time at all for fires to take hold and run rampant through the woods.

As if the abundance of eucalyptus wasn’t bad enough, there are swathes of pine forests, full of scented and flammable resin. These pine trees were planted back in the nineteenth century in a bid to reforest Portugal after the majority of its native chestnuts and oaks had been chopped down to build boats.

Back in the days when people lived off the land and made money from selling resin, the forests were kept under control. Nothing was wasted; sprigs of low-lying bushes were gathered to provide bedding for livestock and pinecones made cheap firelighters. I see people from my village trundling along our forest paths with wheelbarrows laden with shrubs so it still happens, but not on a large enough scale. Modern heating, urbanisation and reduced demand for resin mean that forest floors are no longer properly maintained and the bushes and pinecones now serve as kindling for wildfires.

Portuguese forests also used to be well maintained by professionals but the steady erosion of forestry commission funds hasn’t helped matters. These days, there simply aren’t enough forest rangers to go around. In the past, they’d be stationed within the forests, affording them a depth of understanding that allowed them to stamp out many fires before they had a chance to get out of control. The country is now largely dependent on volunteer firefighters who risk, and sadly not infrequently lose, their lives trying to combat the flames.

Several teams of firefighters are hard at work on our wildfire this evening, judging by the number of blue lights I can see going up and down the hill. Although I’m fretting, there’s another village that’s much closer to the flames, which is why there are so many vehicles involved.

I can only imagine what the residents are going through. They won’t be standing around watching and waiting like we are, I’m sure. They’ll be doing everything they can to save their homes and themselves. I just hope they’re successful.

I’ve been watching the fire for so long now that it’s hard to be certain but I think it’s stopped spreading. The wind hasn’t changed, thank goodness. An hour later, although the fire is still bright, it appears to be receding. Other neighbours assure me that there’s only scrubland up there now and the chances of it reaching us are slim. Instead of packing the car and fleeing, I eventually decide it’s safe to go to bed. This time.


Julie Dawn Fox is a British writer who moved to central Portugal in 2007 and swiftly fell in love with the country. She provides information, inspiration and tips for living and travelling in Portugal on her blog, Julie Dawn Fox in Portugal.

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