It was 4pm and 45oC, the air was still and solid and I was busy wittling an airway into it just so that I could breathe. I looked up and saw smoke, considerable smoke considering I had only just seen it.
As always when we see smoke we go and have a reki to see what’s what. What’s what turned out that the wildfire, although big, was miles away, maybe 20 miles away and across the IC8, the main trunk road that runs east to west across central Portugal. Although our concerns were with those affected we relaxed as it really was miles away.
By the time we got home ominous black clouds were brewing slowly, thunder could be heard rumbling in the distance but there was still no sign of the much anticipated rain. Too hot to be outside we gathered in all the dogs, shut the doors and windows, closed the curtains, put the fan on and settled down to watch a film.
At 7pm I thought it seemed incredibly dark for the time of day, but the ongoing thunder, the wind and rolling clouds made me think little more of it. It was just one hell of a storm brewing. But boy had the wind got up, I opened the curtains and the windows to allow some fresher air in. As I did so I saw a flock of birds fly overhead, nothing too odd in that you may ask, but what was odd was that it was different species of birds. It was indeed most very odd and immediately reminded me of a scene in War of the Worlds; flocks of birds flying away just before a huge tripod emerges through the trees to laserbeam all those beneath it. I looked up at the mass of clouds, but they were too low, too brown, too swarming to be clouds.
By rights I should have known what it was but I truly believe my brain didn’t want to accept that fact, it was happy for it to be just clouds, just a thunder storm, no tripods from Mars.
Mr C had gone outside at this point, and for whatever reason but for a reason I never stop being thankful for he refused to allow the dogs out with him as they would have gallivanted off to see what was to be seen. I watched him walk to the corner of the house and look up behind it. I saw his eyes rise, then his head rise, it kept going up.
From this point onwards, until we were in the relative safety of a friend’s house, everything was on automatic. We were purely actors in a HD disaster movie, following a script without question. In slow motion.
I ran outside to where Mr C was stood.
The wind was incredible. I’ve never experienced the power of wind like that but through the sound of the wind was this indescribable noise.
“What’s that noise?!” He yelled. “WHAT is that fucking noise?!”
I looked behind the house. The horizon had gone. In that it wasn’t where it used to be. It was now about 300m from where we stood. A horizontal moving, living wall of smoke and something we couldn’t quite determine. I looked up and up again. It was massive. It went up, over and beyond where I could physically see without contorting my body backwards over itself. The only way I can describe it now is like a tsunami. A gigantic mass of energy swarming up and over where we stood.
But the noise! Oh my god the noise!
I had never heard anything like it. The wind was roaring but this underlying noise was different. It was both primeval and other worldly; it was both deep and shrill at the same time. It brought instant fear and the urgent need to flee (and pee).
At this time we had still not understood we were in the midst of a firestorm. Despite all the evidence, all the smoke, the wind, the heat and the noise there were still no flames.
And then like Moses and the burning bush everything became apparent. Our neighbour’s cherry tree, which was maybe 20m from our house, suddenly exploded into flames. Literally. Boomf!
I turned to Mr C and watched his mouth slowly open before screaming one single word that will terrify me for the rest of my life.
My basic instinct was to get the dogs, I could think of nothing but them. I ran into the house and grabbed their leads and harnesses, spent time carefully making sure that each was connected to each other and to me.
I then just stood there. It was probably just seconds but felt much longer. I knew that seriously, this may be the last time that I would stand here with the choices I had. Knowing that we may lose everything but that I had the time to take certain things with me bought everything down to basics. I grabbed the hard drive and the little cuddly rabbit my mum had bought for me before I was even born and that was it. Everything else had to stay. Had to potentially be lost. I will never forget that odd calm feeling of standing there, looking around me and realising that it was all just stuff, that none of it really mattered.
I left the dogs inside the house as it was still cool and sheltered and safe. I ran outside to get Mr C, he was dousing the land closest to the house with the hose. He shouted at me to tip the barrels over. We had about ten 200l barrels full of water dotted around the house. I knocked each one over, letting the water flood out and soak into the ground and bottom wooden frames of the house. Thankfully the fires nearest to us were sporadic and slow moving as they skipped across cleared areas of our neighbour’s lands to jump to the richer pickings of trees and more denser undergrowth. At that time we didn’t understand that what we were witnessing were purely the foot soldiers and henchmen of the the fire. The heat and embers of the oncoming storm were setting the land alight around us but the war horses had yet to arrive.
The forest around us, that surrounded us to three sides was quickly becoming engulfed by flames. The heat was indescribable, the wind roared up the hillside and towards the wall of hell that was fast approaching us. The wind was feeding the fire, actively flowing towards it at gale force rates, but still we didn’t really comprehend the magnitude, intensity or sheer energy of what was coming.
The smoke was overbearing, I quickly understood how smoke could, would kill you first. I could feel my lungs burning and my airways starting to close. I knew we had to leave now, to stay in the house, a timber framed straw-bale house would be madness. I turned to call Mr C, but he had gone. I looked down to the bottom of the land with horror, the whole forested tract that led from the village road and then down in the valley past the left hand side of Vale Verde was aflame. My husband was there trying to beat the flames back from our land. Suddenly the flames withdrew, but they were merely taking a deep breath before exhaling in full force. My husband disappeared among the roar of flames before appearing seconds later running at full force back up towards the house, flames chasing his every step. In any other moment than this I would have been laughing at the sheer Buster Keaton’ness of this unbelievable view.
We quickly made desperate attempts to protect the house; wetting the walls and timber frames down, soaking old sacks and shoving them under the doors and leaving the borehole pump on to pump water over the ground at the back of the house. We disconnected the gas and rolled the bottles down the hill as far from the house as possible.
And that was it. That was all we could do. The forest to our left was an inferno, the forest to our right was beginning to burn as the fire started to spread across from the village road. The heat and smoke was suffocating, the wind astonishing and still that awful sound, that persistent low wailing.
The firestorm was now truly upon us and I was petrified. It’s magnitude was beyond anything I has ever seen or would want to see again. It surrounded us completely in a horseshoe, the only way clear was down into the wooded valley.
We knew we had to get the van out immediately, that if we didn’t we were at risk of being trapped without transport. We bundled the dogs into the van, shut all it’s windows, and just drove. The track to the house is rough and steep in places. It is surrounded by closely planted pines, with sharp bends and steep drops. It is not something to be negotiated at speed, in a cumbersome van, in a state of panic and with visibility reducing by the minute.
Luckily we have driven that track almost every day for four years now and we knew it well. Dense smoke had now engulfed the whole area but thankfully visibility was still good enough. Mr C was silent but gripped the wheel of the van for dear life. The dogs, usually besides themselves with excitement at the thought of a road trip, were huddled together panting in the footwell of the rear seats.
We shot along the track and up and back towards the wall of fire, this was the only way out, to go towards it. Trees and undergrowth were spontaneously bursting into flames all around us. Flames scooting along the ground, shooting up trunks and jumping from place to place. There was no rhyme or reason to it’s movement, we were surrounded by fires and we could see fires igniting in the distance. It was both bewitching and horrifying.
We stopped at our first neighbour’s house, with a single hose he was desperately wetting down the front of his property. He sadly shook his head at us and motioned for us to go. He said he would go only if he had to.
It was only then that I called the bombeiros, only when we had some time to stop and think but I didn’t know the true scale of what was happening around us. I calmly told the operator there was a massive fire here, there was silence. He asked where we were, I told him, again there was silence. I asked if they were coming, if help was coming, more silence and then the man said quietly but with the usual bluntness that comes from speaking a language that is not your own, “No. We cannot come. We do not have people to come. It is too big. It is everywhere. Please, go indoors.” And with that he put the phone down.
I looked at Mr C. “Are they coming?” He asked. “No.” I said. “The fire is too big.”
We suddenly felt incredibly alone.
We turned the van right to the village centre. We parked next to our other neighbour’s garage. A large concrete block building with one side very open to the environment.
Our neighbour was wetting the floor of the garage and his car. His wife was stood screaming that the mayor was a big shit. Not in the mood for a political debate we didn’t question her.
Our neighbour told us to leave the van outside but for us to get into the garage and with that they disappeared. I can only presume shut away in their homes.
It reminded me, oddly, of some film where the bad guys were coming and everyone buggered off. Doors and windows slamming shut to leave the newbies to deal with the shitstorm.
We got the dogs out of the van and we huddled inside the garage. But even sat right at the back of the building the smoke was starting to overwhelm us. Mr C and I had wet t-shirts around our mouths but the dogs had nothing. Their stress was awful to see, they were silent and still and huddled close together, their staring eyes never leaving us, trusting us totally to keep them safe but their breathing was ragged and desperate as they endured the full effects of the smoke.
Again, another film came to mind (my mind is odd, bear with it), I think it was Twister, when the people are all huddled in a shelter and the tornado passes over them. This is what being in this godforsaken garage was like. The noise, the wind, the heat and the smoke intensifying by each long second and all being viewed through this widescreen tv of a a very large and very open garage doorway. It was truly terrifying. The feeling of being totally helpless, totally vulnerable and totally at the mercy of something you had absolutely no control over. Knowing that this could and may actually kill you.
I realised I had never actually been terrified before, not truly. I’d been frightened and scared and anxious and shaken but not this. It was an odd emotion. I imagined it to involve energy and action and noise but in fact it was rather calm and numbing and silent.
We had no idea whether to stay was suicide or not. We had no idea if the fire would burn through the wooden beams of the roof but we knew the smoke was overpowering, we were starting to struggle to breathe and focus and so we made the decision to leave. The surrounding forests to the left and the right of the village were on fire. So we decided to head for the IC8, the main trunk road so we could move as quickly as possible to a built up area. And so we turned left.
No sooner had we left the village proper we knew we had made a dreadful dreadful mistake.
Initially it was the darkness that hit us. I hear people talk of zero visibility and I think, ah but yes, you must be able to see something, no smoke or fog can be that thick. The smoke was that thick. We couldn’t even see the end of the bonnet of the van. Twice we nearly took the van off the edge of the road, down into the forested ravines.
As we slowly took a bend we were engulfed by the fire. The forest surrounding us on both sides of the road was an inferno, the road was aflame from the falling debris.
Ahead we could only see the vivid brightness of fire. We realised to continue was madness, the heat was unbearable. Mr C muttered something about tyres melting but I pretended not to hear him. I tipped bottles of water over the dogs heads to try and give them some comfort. It was like trying to breathe in a furnace.
With some skill and a lot of luck Mr C managed to reverse the van back up around the bend and back up to the village. Flames licking at our wheels the whole time.
We turned the van into the track that led to Vale Verde and looked back down to where our beautiful house stood. The fire was immense with flames shooting maybe 30ft or 40ft high into the sky. The smoke was a virtual solid mass, nothing could be seen but the flames. We both let out massive sobs, clung to each other and cried. We were surrounded by flames and had no idea where to go or what to do.
All the while this was going on, which was actually in real time maybe only 45 minutes from when we first saw the fire, we were getting phone calls from friends in Portugal warning us a fire was coming, from friends and family in the UK worried about our safety.
The one single call that changed our evening was from a friend who had managed to get to the next village to try and help us.
The next village was safe. There was no fire there or at any of the villages from there to the main town of Pedrogao Grande. The fire had come across the IC8, under it’s many bridges and was now heading north, west and south but thankfully not east. Surrounded by this hell on earth we couldn’t believe that less than a kilometre away was clear.
That was all we needed to hear, we turned the van right this time. It was like pot holers I should imagine, who come to submerged tunnels and have to take a deep breath not quite knowing how long it will be before you resurface. We took a deep breath and for the third time that night we drove through the flames, directly into where the fire was raging. Burning branches and trees fell onto the roof of the van. One small tree had fallen across the road, Mr C, giving a heroic yell, drove the van into it, it’s burnt trunk shattering on impact. We burst through the smoke and flames to be greeted by a mass of villagers stood desperately trying to wet down the local woodyard which although safe was at huge risk of igniting from just the sheer heat of the close proximity of the fire. There were still no bombeiros, it was just villagers with buckets of water and hosepipes. We parked and turned to look back. It was literally a curtain of smoke and fire; one side was an inferno, the other wasn’t. It was the oddest thing I had ever seen.
Our friend greeted us, and quietly handed over a bag containing bottles of water, bottles of beer and two chicken pies. It was the best present we had ever been given. We asked him how he had got to us and he said via the back road from the town, that the IC8 was impassable. It was only then we realised the scale of what we were witnessing. We went with him to the next village cafe to get water for the dogs and we hugged and cried, and then he left, not knowing if his own home was safe or not.
A friend from the UK contacted us to tell us to go to her house in the next village, that it was safe and we would be safe. That was all we wanted, even if it was just for a few hours.
We found the keys and walked into the house. It was such a scene of such normality it was really quite bizarre. We shut and locked the door and stood against it, shaking, crying, hugging the now bemused dogs to us. We sat and drank our bottles of beer and ate our pies, we fed the dogs and settled them down. I was wearing pj shorts, a vest top and trainers. Mr C was wearing swimming shorts and a pair of wellies, that was it. The soles of his wellies had melted into one rubber mass. His ears and back were burnt from the falling embers and I had little scalded spots all over my arms and legs. We had showers and found some clean clothes to wear.
By this time it was about 9pm, we knew neither of us would or could sleep so we gathered a blanket, purely for comfort, and along with the dogs we snuggled up on the sofa. Just staring in silence, I don’t think we said more than a few words to each other that evening. We couldn’t. We both knew that our beautiful hand built home was probably gone. That everything we owned was probably gone. That our poor little chickens had most certainly perished in a way I couldn’t even think about. We didn’t know how to talk about that. So we didn’t.
I couldn’t settle and so I spent several hours sat on the verandah, I needed to know exactly what was happening around me. I wanted to go at a moments notice. Looking out to the back of the house you could imagine all was fine, the sky was a clear deep blue and house and street lights could be seen twinkling in the distance, you could even hear the faint beats of a festa. But turn one 180o and you would think you had been picked up and deposited into a war zone; you had gone through some gateway to hell itself. The continual weird low keening of the fire, the roar of the wind, the mass of black billowing smoke with it’s deep red underbelly and the sound of gas bottles exploding was just indescribable.
This is the only picture of the fire I took. It’s a terrible picture. Aptly so. But our friend’s house, where we sheltered, is in the middle ground, to the left. And those flames behind it are of our village and beyond burning.
Facebook was a godsend for me that night; we felt desperately alone, scared and devastated for what we were convinced was the loss of our home and for the loss others were surely facing. But by connecting with friends and family, by learning what was happening and where it gave us a feeling of community and comfort. I can never thank enough the people who stayed in contact with us that night, they really were a lifeline, a baseline of normality in the most surreal situation I have ever found myself in.
Hell Fire – Day Two to follow….