We spent the early hours of Sunday driving around. We couldn’t settle, twice we had seen flames close to where we had taken refuge and we were paranoid our only access road out of the area could become blocked. At about 2am we drove to the town of Pedrogao Grande. It was a full scale military operation, it really was like the set of a disaster movie. Firetrucks from all over the country and even Spain. Army, GNR and GIPS vehicles everywhere. Large tents had been erected on the industrial estate and a warehouse was being stocked full of water, food and medical supplies.
The vantage point from the town was a view I never want to witness again, it was only then that we could see the true scale of the firestorm. To the north, south and west of where we stood, billowing masses of smoke towered into the sky to heights I couldn’t even begin to predict, covering an area so huge you couldn’t see where it ended. And all with that ever present swarming red glow from it’s depths. It was monstrous.
We were low on fuel and so decided to drive to Figueiro dos Vinhos, our next nearest town, to the 24hr gas station. The IC8 was open, surprisingly, but we soon realised that was because there was nothing left to burn. The devastation was breath taking. The metal signs and barriers had melted in the heat. The fire had easily crossed the expanse of tarmac, jumping from the closely planted trees on one side to the other. The smoke was still thick and choking but visibility was good enough to drive carefully. Eucalyptus and pine trees had fallen across the road, several times we had to drive right against the opposite barrier and push the van through the burnt canopies of the fallen trees. We saw maybe two other vehicles on that road.
Figueiro was buzzing considering it was 3am. A couple of cafes were open and the place was full of people who had either had to flee for their lives or who just felt the need to be together. Surprisingly as soon we got there we realised we wanted to be back closer to our own village. Being surrounded by others in the same state as we were was overwhelming. Everyone was wild eyed and anxious and that energy just made us even more on edge. We filled the van with fuel and drove back to our friend’s house.
By 6am it was starting to get light. The fire had moved much further south and west and the wind had died completely. The smoke was still choking but there was now this odd sense of calm. Mr C said we had to go to the Vale Verde, we had to face it. I felt sick to the core. I had no idea what we would find but I knew what we had left the previous night.
We gathered the dogs, closed the house, thankful for the comfort it gave us and drove back towards our village. The closest villages to our friend’s house were still untouched by the fire but as we drove towards our village the landscape abruptly changed. We drove past our neighbour’s house, past the garage we sheltered in. We were relieved to see both it and our neighbours houses undamaged. I have no idea if we would have survived sitting in that building, the fire would not have reached us, but the smoke? I had no idea if we could have survived the smoke.
We then turned down the track leading to Vale Verde. I gave a small yelp. Flames were billowing up from one single patch in the forest. Smoke pluming into the air. I knew it was our house. Still burning, still dying. The forest track was surrounded by the charred stumps and trunks of pine and eucalyptus. Their canopies either disintegrated or a scorched mass of brown leaves and needles. The ground was completely cleared, still smouldering, totally black. Nothing remained at all on the ground. We slowly drove down to a point where we could normally look back and see Vale Verde. I have never felt quite so sick. We stopped and looked back.
And there was our house!
Stood perfectly intact. Minding it’s own business as if nothing had happened at all. In fact, if I may say, it looked a trifle smug, sat there among the debris.
The burning building was our neighbour’s stone shed, about maybe 30 m from our house. The contents and wooden beamed roof still on fire.
We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. We looked at each and burst out laughing and crying at the same time. Hysterical gulps of laughter mixed with tears.
We drove the van round and up to the house itself. And there she was. Hunkered down as always, unruly and unfinished but ours and beautiful. The pine forested land was completely burnt. The little orchard of oak trees that nestled against the back of the house were scorched but intact, the extreme top of their canopy still green. The ground was blackened up to the two completed swales that stood near the house but the fire had been unable to cross the irrigated mass of vegetation and soil.
The forest that led down to Vale Verde itself, the green valley, was completely devastated. Blackened pines toppling over by the force of the wind.
And then I saw the chicken pen. This is something I will regret for the rest of my life. I had totally forgotten to let the chickens out. We were so busy trying to fight the fire, trying to escape I had given no thought what so ever to how they would survive. We had five chickens, one had died earlier on Saturday, the heat too much for her, but the remaining five were lovely little creatures. Two were still babies, only bought two weeks before. The pen was destroyed but the metal fence intact. Imprisoning them into a hell I don’t want to imagine. I gave out a great wail as I saw their tiny bodies, huddled together at the gate. They were trying to escape. My heart finally broke, after all we had been through, this was too much. This was too painful.
Mr C called me, I looked up and he was holding a chicken! A very dirty and anxious looking chicken. I cried out and he passed her to me. It was, aptly, Dirtie Gertie. My very favourite chicken. I cuddled her too me and she let me, snuggling down into my arms and closing her eyes and crooning to me in that endearing warbly way that chickens do. I don’t know how she escaped but I was so grateful she had. She always had been a determined and independent chook, never one to follow the flock. And there she was, our very own phoenix from the ashes.
I carried her with me into the house, she stayed in our house, a house chicken for a day or two. Quite content with her cage and our company. The house was exactly as we left it. Half finished beers on the table, dinner preparations on the counter. There was no sign of the sheer panic we went through in our last moments inside it. It was smoky and everything was covered in a fine layer of ash but apart from that it was as it always was. Chaotic, untidy, unfinished but much loved.
We took more time to walk outside. We could see that the fire had followed two paths down into the valley beyond us. One through the wooded and overgrown land to the left of the house and another, through the pine forest to our right. It had then tried to come up to the house, boy had it tried. Luckily the land behind the house was agricultural, belonging to our neighboours’ and was therefore kept clear. The fire had burnt the stubble right up to the house’s rear wall but with little else to catch hold of it had died. But those bloody beautiful oak trees had protected the house from the worst. Their lower canopies were scorched and burnt but their deciduous, water laden leaves had stopped the fire from raging up. It had instead gone down into the lower paddock and beyond. The fire to the right had been intense, an area of just pine and scrub it had crossed over the track, unable to get a hold on our graveled drive it had entered our own small pine woodland. And from there it joined it’s partner in crime, circling the house completely before carrying on it’s awful relentless way towards Figueiro dos Vinhos.
The land was pitiful to see. A day ago it had been a lush green oasis of wildflowers and insects and birds. We even had a stunning pair of red squirrels living in our trees. They were all gone. Scorched smoking earth remained and the charred trunks of trees. But we were so grateful for our house to be intact, little else mattered.
We were exhausted but so full of adrenaline we couldn’t relax or rest. We drove to our nearest cafe, to see if any of our friends and neighbours were OK. Despite still being early it was busy and it was only then that we heard the horrendous news that people, many people had died the previous night. Died trying to flee the inferno. We saw one friend, he was crying. His land and home gone. He then told us that a beautiful young woman we knew had died in the fire along with other family members. We were dumbstruck. This vibrant full of life girl, recently married and so excited by life had gone in a way I couldn’t bear to think about.
We drove home in silence, suddenly our small losses seemed irrelevant. Our experience was nothing compared to what she had suffered and how her loved ones would be suffering now.
When we returned to Vale Verde several small fires had reignited, stumps and roots of trees bursting into flame as the air reached them. We put them out with buckets of water. Our hoses and pipes were just lines of white ash in the earth. We heard a shout from the forested area to our left. It was our German neighbour who lived over the small ridge. His land was untouched, the pine forest on the ridge somehow intact. He warned us that the fire would be back today. It had unfinished business he said, and gestured along the ridge of still green pines and eucalyptus. We sincerely hoped he was guessing and not stating.
At about one 1pm we heard our Portuguese neighbour shout, we went outside and he pointed down into the valley. Sure enough a massive plume of smoke could be seen. We felt sick. We didn’t know which way the fire was going to go and so we got the dogs ready. We heard a truck pull up outside the house, it was a GIPS team, they pointed to the now very black smoke and told us to leave, the fire was heading our way. I got the dogs whilst Mr C grabbed his whole computer (!) and put on a t-shirt (I’m being decent this time, he stated) and we drove back to the village road. We stopped the van, got out and looked back.
The fire was already huge and out of control. The smoke thick, black and bellowing. It’s speed was shocking. Within minutes it had roared back up the valley and along the intact ridge. But it was also burning our land, the bottom paddock was already back on fire. It was traveling with a ferocity that was mesmerising in the light of day. Each tree it reached exploded into a sky high plume of flames. We then realised with horror, that it was on course for our house. This single mass of fire was moving steadily back to our house, making use of what unburnt material it could to feed it and to claim what it had missed the night before. We couldn’t believe that this would or could happen a second time.
The GIPS truck had gone, once again it was just Mr C, me and our neighbours. We presumed the bombeiros would this time be on their way, but I called 112 regardless. The operator was calm and efficient, he asked for our location and paused. He asked if help was there already. I said no, there was no-one here. He paused again and then said, it will be……..I never heard his last few words as there was a roar of engines overhead. Ducking down and cowering into the van three massive yellow Canadair planes came over the ridge behind us. We did a very American ‘Woop! Woop!’ Arms pumping the air but then felt immediately embarrassed and British so we stood quietly instead.
The planes flew low and straight into the fire, disappearing into the smoke, depositing gallons of water onto the flames. They initially doused the land in front of the fire’s path, which included our house. They then circled around and flew back to the lake to refill.
Watching them work as a team was amazing. Buffeting and bullying the fire into submission. I likened it to farmers trying to cajole a pig around a course with a stick and a board at a country fayre.
Two planes then flew our side of the fire and doused it’s outer edge whilst the third plane flew low, so low it was skimming the tree tops and doused it’s full length. They did this maybe three or four times, the quantity of water they could each contain was huge. Steering the fire away from our house and our neighbours’ houses and then containing it to the ridge.
Apparently fire trucks were also on the ground working to save our German neighbour’s property. This time, although awful to witness, compared to the previous night the situation felt more in control, we personally felt safe despite the further devastation we were seeing. The planes continued to work as the fire moved up along the ridge, heading towards the next village along. The GIPS team returned and told us it was OK to go back, we weren’t convinced, the fire was still raging but the smoke was turning from black to grey. Always a good sign. We stood and waited, not trusting the fire or the advice given. Within maybe thirty minutes the smoke lessened and finally turned white before disappearing altogether.
We tried to drive to the next village, to see if our neighbour was OK, but the road was cordoned off. He was fine apparently and his house and immediate land saved, although he had lost the entire stretch of pine forest.
We returned to Vale Verde, we were exhausted. We slept a little in the afternoon but as the light began to fade so our fears increased. As the sun started to set the sky turned a deep and eerie orange, the sun a tiny red Martian ball amongst the smoke. Every now and then root stumps would burst into flames and so we would have to rush out with buckets of water to douse them. The air was still thick with smoke and we knew that the fire was still making it’s way south and north. Our nerves were shattered, I bolted out of the front door at the sound of the kettle hissing. Mr C shouted out on seeing the orange glow of a table lamp reflected in the window.
We knew this was going to take a while to recover from mentally; the speed at which it happened, the shock of what we had seen and experienced, knowing that other people had lost everything and the massive emotional blow knowing that many had died in the most horrendous of circumstances.
We had so much to be grateful for but regardless, this was going to be a tough one to get through.
Hell Fire – The Aftermath and Recovery to follow….